Mail Today March 18, 2008 p.4
Hope floats for nuke deal, at least for now
By Manoj Joshi in New Delhi
THE nuclear deal remains on track, but just about.
Monday’s UPA-Left meeting and the decision to hold the next session early next month seems to suggest that a carefully choreographed action is taking place.
“If the Left wanted to kill the deal, they could have done it on Monday,” said a Western diplomat, speaking on condition of confidentiality.
In February, senator Joe Biden, who was visiting India with fellow senators Chuck Hagel and John Kerry, had said “If we don’t have the (Indo-US nuclear) deal back with us clearly prior to the month of July, it will be very difficult to ratify.”
So, technically there is a window of opportunity that will remain open, ever so narrowly, till early May. This coincides nicely with the end of the Budget session of Parliament.
The government’s strategy seems to be to operate the next two phases simultaneously — getting International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) acquiescence for the India-specific safeguards agreement, and the “clean exemption” for civil nuclear trade from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).
A formal Indian approval of the India-specific safeguards agreement by the IAEA in Vienna is now necessary. This agreement has been clinched, and its frozen text was approved by the Cabinet committee on security two weeks ago.
This must now be approved by the IAEA board of governors. While there is a formal 45-day process to summon the board, IAEA chief Mohammed El Baradei is backing the deal and will provide a short cut.
According to the July 18, 2005 agreement, the US has to obtain the clearance for the deal from the NSG.
The frozen text of the India-IAEA agreement is already in circulation among NSG members and the US is in touch with them to obtain the necessary clearance.
The NSG approval may not be simple because the members want to connect it to the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). But putting a preamble — that talks of the need for a FMCT and CTBT — to the India-IAEA agreement may do the trick.
According to officials, both the IAEA and NSG processes could be telescoped into a month-and-a-half period. So even if the clock starts ticking mid-May, the agreement can be with the US Congress by July.
The NSG’s plenary meeting is scheduled to be held on May 19, 2008. This can be seen as the second deadline of sorts for the Indian government. This, too, can be met if all the ground work is done in advance, as it has clearly been done, according to Western diplomats.
While the deadlines take off from the US Congressional calendar as indicated by Biden, it is possible that a last-ditch approval can be obtained by the Centre and the Bush administration even as late as the end of 2008. But this will be an outside chance since no one can predict how the US, or for that matter the Indian, political process will play out.
Former US president Bill Clinton has said at the recent India Today Conclave that a future Democratic administration will honour the deal and be ready to renegotiate some portions if necessary. But, currently there are so many imponderables, that predictions are not easy.
India and the US were able to square the circle in arriving at a 123 Agreement that was deemed as being “impossible” by many. Today, the UPA government confronts the challenge of squaring the circle of convincing the Left and many others in the country that the Hyde Act does not impose needless restraints on the country’s sovereignty.