A high-profile Indian team headed by National Security Adviser MK Narayanan heads to Washington on Sunday for talks that are expected to break an impasse over key issues like reprocessing that stand in the way of a bilateral nuclear pact between India and the US.
Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon and Atomic Energy Commission chairman Anil Kakodkar will accompany Narayanan for this crucial round of talks with the American team led by US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and Nicholas Burns, Washington's chief pointman on the nuclear deal.
India's ambassador to the US Ronen Sen and S Jaishankar, New Delhi's envoy to Singapore who have been closely involved in nuclear negotiations, will also join the Indian team in Washington for these crucial talks, official sources said.
The composition of the Indian delegation, especially the inclusion of Kakodkar, indicates that this is New Delhi's most serious attempt yet to seal the bilateral nuclear pact, also called the 123 agreement, by taking the nuclear establishment on board.
The meeting is expected to close the gap over contentious issues like India's insistence on its right to reprocessing, nuclear testing and fuel guarantees.
The idea is to finalise the 123 agreement, which will pave the way for resumption of nuclear commerce between India and the US after a three-decade hiatus, by year-end, as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said recently.
Both Indian and American officials here, however, say informally that it's unreasonable to set a time frame to these inherently complex negotiations.
India is likely to focus on its proposal for setting up a stand-alone dedicated facility for reprocessing US-origin fuel, which was informally shared with the US last month on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in Germany.
As Washington did not react to the Indian suggestion last time, Indian officials here say the forthcoming talks will provide India an idea of the US thinking on the subject that may well break the deadlock over India's demand for prior approval for reprocessing US-origin spent fuel, which it insists was part of the original July 18, 2005 understanding between the two countries.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke to US President George Bush on Wednesday to give an added political push to the long-stalled deal so that a pact can be clinched before he heads to the US in September to attend the UN General Assembly.
Depending on the outcome of the talks, Rice is likely to come to India early next month before Manmohan Singh goes to the US.
If the 123 is in place, Manmohan Singh may accept the invitation to visit Bush at his private ranch in Crawford, Texas, the sources said.
Other issues that are holding up the 123 pact are India's insistence on its right to test a nuclear device and its right to lifetime fuel guarantees for the 14 civil reactors it has agreed to place under international safeguards over the next few years.
With the chief opposition Bharatiya Janata Party demanding that the 123 pact should be discussed first in parliament, the negotiations in Washington next week are going to be under closer scrutiny back home.
Manmohan Singh has assured parliament many a times in the past two years that the bilateral nuclear pact will conform to the July 18, 2005 understanding and March 2, 2006 separation plan and will not impinge adversely on India's strategic deterrence and its three-stage indigenous thorium-based energy programme.