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N-deal: India, US need quick progress

By Nikhil Lakshman
July 28, 2005 16:08 IST
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Now that India and the United States have reached a landmark agreement on nuclear technology, both nations realise the need to demonstrate some -- ideally substantial -- progress before US President George W Bush visits New Delhi next January-February.

On the agenda: The joint working committee to supervise the nuclear treaty agreed upon by both Bush and Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh must be formed and meet within the next six weeks at least; the American president will need to steer the agreement through expected opposition in the US Congress; and India must begin the process of identifying its civilian nuclear reactors to enable the purchase of much needed fuel. All this before Bush arrives early next year, the first visit by a Republican president in 36 years.

"Please understand the basis for this agreement is reciprocity," emphasised one of Dr Singh's top advisers. "There is no compulsion on either side. It is up to us to decide which of our reactors is civilian and which is military."

"We may declare that all our existing nuclear reactors are military and all the reactors coming up are civilian," added another senior official in the Prime Minister's Office. "The choice is ours."

The nuclear deal

Neither official knew how much the separation of civilian and nuclear facilities would cost the government, only adding that it is likely to be expensive.

"What was the alternative?" asked the PMO official. "If we had not got the fuel, we (some of India's nuclear plants like the Tarapur atomic energy station, near Mumbai) would have had to shut shop in 2007 because our nuclear fuel would have run out in 2006."

Indo-US nuclear treaty: A good deal

Even though the Americans and Indians had indicated the possibility of arriving at an agreement on nuclear techonology in the run-up to Dr Singh's visit to Washington, DC, one Indian diplomat involved in the negotiations explained that the details were only finalised during two meetings in Washington, DC.

First, when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice set aside protocol and called on Indian External Affairs Minister K Natwar Singh at the Willard Hotel on Sunday, July 17.

The broad framework of an agreement, the Indian diplomat added, was then given further shape at a breakfast meeting Dr Rice had with Dr Singh and Natwar Singh at Blair House the next morning, an hour or so before the Indian prime minister was accorded a ceremonial welcome at the White House.

In fact, during the Bush-Singh press conference on the afternoon of July 18, India's National Security Adviser M K Narayanan was seen passing a handwritten note (the words civilian reactors were clearly visible to this reporter who was seated alongside) to US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, who has been active in shaping a new American relationship with India.

Interestingly, one of the prime minister's top advisers played down the significance of both encounters, stating "We (successive Indian governments) have been raising the issue of fuel for Tarapur with the Americans for a long time. The Americans kept saying that Tarapur must be part of the process for a better relationship."

Did we need the nuclear deal with the US?

Indian officials understand the difficulties Bush confronts in altering American nuclear legislation in Congress to enable the agreement with India become a reality, especially if he is weakened by the controversy swirling around his top policy advisor Karl Rove in coming weeks.

The challenge for Dr Singh is no less complex, considering the opposition to the agreement in both the Bharatiya Janata Party and Communist camps even before the prime minister's special aircraft landed in New Delhi last Friday.

"Now that the deal is done," points out another of Dr Singh's top advisers, "Boss (the prime minister) has to deliver the message to different audiences, nuancing it in such a way that it appears fresh all the time."

The adviser added that the Indian side has not promised to buy nuclear fuel from the Americans under the agreement, saying it may make commercial sense to approach the French and Russians for the fuel. It is understood the Americans will instead be satisfied with multi-billion dollar deals like Air-India's decision to buy Boeing aircraft.

What if both the Indians and Americans are unable to make headway before Bush arrives in India?

Dr Singh's advisers were unwilling to comment on the consequences, but their body language indicated that both governments have a lot of hard work to do to ensure that the euphoria from last week's summit in Washington, DC does not evaporate in a hurry.

Dr Singh visits Washington: Complete coverage

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Nikhil Lakshman