After 34 years of nuclear isolation, India on Friday will be within striking distance of dissolving the sanctions the world imposed on New Delhi against buying nuclear reactors and fuel from abroad.
A first transformational step will be taken at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. The atomic watchdog will debate and clear an inspection arrangement for the nuclear plants that India says are for civilian purposes — and important to Indian efforts of bridging the annual electricity shortfall of 14,000 mega watts, enough to power three cities the size of Delhi.
A diplomatic effort similar in scale to the one launched during the 1999 Kargil war has been mounted by India, as envoys crisscross the world in support of the civil nuclear deal.
Two steps are required: a cartel of 45 nations called the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) must relax its guidelines and the American Congress has to ratify a bilateral agreement with India signed last year.
Pakistani opposition to the deal is expected to be a sideshow. Senior officials believe that a vote at the 35-member IAEA governing board is unlikely. Pakistan's case will be heard, and India's agreement will be approved.
According to one Indian official, Pakistan will be left at the "starting point of a race", which India is close to clinching. Pakistan, said analysts, has been stopped in its tracks because of the clandestine nuclear Wal-Mart set up by the former head of its nuclear programme, A.Q. Khan.
India’s effort to rescind its pariah status started in July 2005, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President George W. Bush issued a joint statement, committing Washington to engage in civil nuclear commerce with India. The destination now appears near.
Though a formal bilateral agreement was signed between India and the US giving effect to the July 2005 understanding in August 2007, opposition from the Left parties almost ensured the nuclear deal was a non-starter.
In November last year, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee convinced the Left parties to at least let the government negotiate a draft safeguards’ agreement with the IAEA.
Despite the Left withdrawing support and time running out for the US Congress to clear the bilateral agreement, the safeguards’ draft has allowed the government to proceed quickly to the IAEA.
Senior officials told HT that the passage of the draft safeguards’ agreement is likely to be smooth. The US and Britain — aghast at India’s May 1998 nuclear tests — have taken the lead in ending India's international isolation.