So it is official now: time is running out for the India-US civilian nuclear deal. A three-man team of US senators led by Joseph Biden, who heads the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee, disclosed this on Wednesday at a press conference in Delhi. Much water has flown down the Yamuna and the Potomac since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush inked the deal in July 2005. It focuses on developing India’s civilian nuclear power programmes in exchange for placing its civil nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. But controversy has dogged it from the word go, with detractors — chiefly the Left partners of the government — deriding it as a potential ‘sellout’ of India’s interests.
The truth, of course, is that the Bush administration staked an unprecedented amount of political energy on this agreement, which represents a big change in US policy. Apart from revising domestic law, the US would have to convince its 44 Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) partners to waive guidelines prohibiting the supply of nuclear material or technology to States that don’t accept IAEA safeguards on all its nuclear facilities. Never mind India’s credentials as ‘a responsible State with advanced nuclear technology’. According to the deadline identified by the Biden team, the US Congress will only consider the deal if it reaches Capitol Hill before July. This effectively means that New Delhi must finalise the India-specific safeguards agreement with the IAEA and get the nod of the NSG in the next few months. In the event the US Congress doesn’t ratify it, the deal almost certainly runs the risk of being renegotiated by the next Congress. And going by the campaign rhetoric of the two Democratic Party presidential candidates, neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton is likely to back a deal initiated by Mr Bush. There is no guarantee, either, that the Republican candidate John McCain will endorse President Bush’s overture towards India. So it would be unfortunate if the agreement were to fall through because of political reasons than due to any technical ones, as both countries have staked so much political capital on it.
As many experts have pointed out, there are no technicalities in the deal that can’t be sorted out with more discussion, which makes it all the more a shame that critics oppose it just for the sake of opposing it.