India and the United States have reached a breakthrough in talks over the landmark nuclear deal, and the agreement being prepared will not bar New Delhi from detonating nuclear devices, a senior official has told the Hindustan Times.
The progress on the bilateral pact — also called the "123 agreement" — was reported ahead of the US Senate's expected vote next week on a crucial bill that seeks to reverse US law to allow Washington to make that deal with India.
The process of seeking legislative approval for the deal — a top priority for US President George W Bush — is running alongside the hard-nosed quibbling between India and the US over the actual terms of the agreement.
The US House of Representatives — the other House of the US Congress, or parliament — overwhelmingly approved the bill in July to let Washington supply nuclear fuel to India to meet the soaring energy demands of its booming economy. In return, India has promised a separation of its nuclear and civilian facilities.
A senior Indian official with close knowledge of the "123" negotiations told HT that US officials had accepted India's view that New Delhi had already imposed on itself a moratorium on future nuclear testing and would not accept the condition in a bilateral agreement. This has for months been one of the major sticking points in the discussions.
"We had said that it would be difficult for us to accept. They have said that they understand the concerns we have," the official said on condition of anonymity. "There is going to be no mention of 'detonation'. I think we have been able to make a breakthrough."
Separately, Indian and American officials on Thursday concluded three days of talks in New Delhi over the civilian-nuclear deal.
"We cannot have the bar on testing reflected in a bilateral agreement. It cannot have a juridical status. Then it will become a bilateral CTBT," the official said, referring to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which aims to ban all nuclear tests and explosions. India has not signed the pact, calling it discriminatory.
Severe opposition in the Senate to civilian nuclear cooperation could still overturn the fine points of the deal, but it seems unlikely going by the public positions of leading Congress lobbies.
That is giving hope to backers of the deal in both governments as the present Congress, controlled by Bush's Republican Party, prepares to consider the India question. Even if the Senate approves the nuclear bill, the final document will have to be voted upon again by both houses, before it gets presidential assent.
But the government has little time in the short, so-called lame-duck session that will take a holiday break at the weekend before returning briefly in December for a final meeting.
If the bill cannot be enacted by then, the entire legislative process will have to begin afresh when the new Congress convenes in January — with its newly won Democratic Party majority.
Despite Bush's electoral reverses, US Ambassador to India David C Mulford told reporters on Thursday: "We are optimistic ... There is a strong bipartisan support to the civil nuclear agreement in the US." He said potential deal-breaker amendments had been cut down to manageable numbers — "around half a dozen".