A group of Indian American lobbyists came to New Delhi to learn more about the Indo-US nuclear deal, but ended up becoming a conduit between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
When the eight-member delegation met Manmohan Singh at his residence on Tuesday, they were not only told that the deal was still alive but the prime minister even asked them to carry a message to the BJP leaders.
"He told us that as we were meeting BJP leaders, we should pass on a message. He asked us to tell them, 'Let's have an open debate on the subject'," Sanjay Puri, chairman of the US India Political Action Committee (Usinpac) and head of the delegation, told IANS.
The following day, the delegation conveyed the prime minister's message to BJP president Rajnath Singh, who responded by reiterating his party's demand for setting up a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) to study the nuclear deal.
The BJP had stalled the budget session of Parliament with its demand for a JPC, which the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government rejected forthwith.
"May be the prime minister knew that we had no vested interests. We were certainly privileged and honoured that he asked us to carry a message (to BJP)," said Puri.
The Indian American lobbyists, most of them with Usinpac, had for two years been instrumental in navigating the legislation for enabling nuclear commerce with India through the US Congress.
The reason for their visit to India was to decipher the mixed signals from New Delhi about the fate of the nuclear deal following the standoff between the government and its Left allies.
"We were getting hammered by the (Indian) community. Congressmen, staffers on the Hill were coming to us and asking us constantly," said Puri, an information technology entrepreneur.
The chief American interlocutor on the nuclear deal, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns has said that Washington would like the bilateral 123 agreement to come before Congress "by the end of the year".
He was concerned that with 2008 being the presidential election year, it would be difficult to shepherd legislation with congressmen and senators distracted by campaigning.
"Time is an enemy," stressed Puri, who was concerned that the next occupier of White House may not be as enthusiastic a backer for the nuclear deal as the incumbent.
"Let's be real. Do you think that the personal stake and credibility that President (George) Bush has invested in the deal will be replicated by the next person?" he asked. "The odds are it won't".
The Indian American group feels that if there was a small chance that the UPA government could steer the deal, it could only be with help of the BJP, which has been vocal about its support for a strong India-US relationship.
"We did convey a message to them (BJP) that there is an opinion among the Indian American community that the BJP is not doing the deal for political reasons," said Puri.
Usinpac co-founder Robinder Sachdeva, a member of the delegation, said that both sides - the government and BJP - needed to talk to each other. "If they are all ready to talk, question is how do they talk."
Incidentally, Manmohan Singh told them that the period till the next meeting of the UPA-Left panel on the deal would be utilised for discussions to see if some consensus can be reached.
"The PM told us categorically that Parliament would see merit in the deal," said Sachdeva.
The delegation also met Communist Party of India leader D Raja, who gave an overview of his party's and Left's opposition to the nuclear deal, emphasising that India would end up aligning with American strategic goals.
In their meetings with BJP and Left leaders, the delegation was careful to establish that they were not batting for the deal but rather wanted to get a right perspective on its chances.
After returning to Washington, Usinpac plans to brief interested Congressmen on their meeting with Indian politicians.
"We are taking the message back to Washington that the prime minister is committed to the deal, but it is in a delicate situation," said Puri.