The US House of Representatives approved the Indo-US civilian nuclear cooperation bill at 10:30 on Friday morning. In a last-minute attempt at the sort of political posturing that has bedeviled the bill, maverick Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich broke the consensus agreement and forced a roll call.
The bill got 355 votes ayes. All the 55 nays were from Democrats. Though indirectly confirming the certainty of the bill’s passage, the labour union-backed Kucinich’s action will mean the final House vote and the subsequent Senate passage will be pushed too on Friday evening.
The White House is so certain of victory that US President George Bush is reportedly penciling in December 11 for a formal signing of the bill – in the House it is called the "Henry J Hyde US-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006 – into law.
The heart of the bill is that it allows the US to provide nuclear technology and material to India’s civilian nuclear programme, ending a nearly 25-year-long boycott required by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime. Legally, it exempts India from fulfilling Section 123(a)2 of the US Atomic Energy Act which said cooperation was possible only when India put all its nuclear facilities under international inspection – in other words surrender its nuclear arsenal.
The US Congress explicitly accepts that New Delhi can have its nuclear cake and eat it too in the bill’s explanatory notes: “The conferees understand that US peaceful nuclear cooperation with India will not be intended to inhibit India’s nuclear weapons program.”
The juggling was in Capitol Hill’s desire, as the notes say, to ensure the bill did not “assist” India’s nuclear weapons development. Another bit of balancing: carve a place within the NPT regime for India without leaving a hole big enough for the Irans and Pakistans of the world to crawl through.
Most of the clauses and amendments that India had protested against were diluted or placed in the toothless, non-binding parts of the legislation.
Draft clauses that held future cooperation hostage to tight monitoring systems and various “presidential certifications were demoted to a set of information summaries. Says South Asia analyst Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation, "A presidential determination is binding, whereas a reporting requirement is merely a report by the administration to the Congress. There are literally, maybe thousands, of reporting requirements included in US legislation.”
The so-called Sherman amendment of the House draft which called for an end to nuclear cooperation if India violated global missile or nuclear nonproliferation agreements, survives in Section 104(d) of the bill. But after protests that it conflates individuals with governments, it waives sanctions if it is clear the Indian government is not the guilty party.
While the US keeps India within its worldwide ban on exporting reprocessing, enrichment and heavy water technology, the bill has a loophole in saying such technology could be made available in case of IAEA-approved research. India already has such knowhow, its interest would be future technological developments. Political scientist Sumit Ganguly of the University of Indiana, Bloomington, says, "This is no surprise. It would be impossible for the US to have granted carte blanche in this matter."
The part of the bill that may cause problems in India will be the very little wiggle room it leaves for India in case there is another nuclear test. The bill makes it clear all bilateral cooperation would be off under such circumstances. However, the language seems to exclude subcritical nuclear testing from its strictures. "The testing issue is a red line for the Congress. One should not have expected major changes on this," says Curtis.
The bill dilutes hopes the US would build up a "strategic fissile material reserve” for Indian reactors and that Washington would help to get other countries to help provide nuclear fuel if it did not do so. The latter is now restricted to a "market failure or other such reason.”
Irritating clauses on Iran, fissile material caps and so on which had seen as trespassing on Indian sovereign decisions have all been bundled into non-binding sections of the bill. These are actually dropped from the text when the bill is signed by the US president and becomes law.
Swadesh Chatterjee, a key Indian-American lobbyist for the bill, argued the text is “better than both the original House and Senate drafts." New Delhi did not get everything it wanted, he admits, "but not even the Israeli lobby can get 100 per cent of what it wants and India got 95 per cent." However the nonproliferation group is not displeased either. Michael Krepon of the Stimson Centre believes the bill indicates that Congress was able to "resist" Bush administration pressure.
There is widespread agreement that the bill is a major turning point in Indo-US relations. William Cohen, Pentagon chief during the Clinton administration and strong proponent of the bill in Washington, said that “this intiative will advance the US-India relationship in multiple ways." Chatterjee agreed, calling the bill a “historic moment” and a “coming of age for the Indian-American community which showed what it could do if when it speaks with one voice."