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Nuke deal gets Senate nod

india Updated: Nov 18, 2006 16:35 IST
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LAST-DITCH OPPOSITION to the India-US civil nuclear cooperation deal was overwhelmingly rejected, with the US Senate voting 85-12 on Thursday in favour of ending the atomic apartheid against India. Tellingly, each of the six “killer” amendments proposed to the bill, which Delhi had said would compel it to reject the nuclear deal, was easily defeated.

US President George W. Bush welcomed the vote, saying on Friday, "The US and India enjoy a strategic partnership based upon common values. Today, the Senate has acted to further strengthen this relationship by passing legislation that will deliver energy, non-proliferation, and trade benefits to the citizens of two great democracies.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi separately told delegates at the HT Leadership Summit that Delhi welcomed the step forward but suggested that it was still too early to celebrate.

The bill passed by the Senate will now be reconciled with a similar bill passed by the House of Representatives in July. Both chambers will then have to approve the legislation in its final form.

The prime minister said there were aspects to the two bills that were not identical. “We have still a long way to go before nuclear cooperation between India and US becomes a living reality,” said Singh.

He said the final version of the deal should be in line with “mutual commitments” made in last year’s agreement.  Sonia made the same point. “All those areas that are not acceptable to us will be excluded (from the final document) and only then will we welcome the bill happily,” she said.

In the US Senate, although US congressional leaders had put aside nearly two days for debate, the senators needed only six hours before going for the final vote. The killer amendments were defeated by wide margins. Though all the “No” votes were by Democrats, the sheer size of the victory margin indicated strong bipartisan support.

This was underlined by Senator Joe Biden, Democratic co-sponsor of the bill. He stressed that the deal was part of the trend begun by former president Bill Clinton and accelerated by Bush.  “When we pass this bill, America will be a giant step closer to approving a major shift in US-Indian relations. If we are right, this shift will increase the prospects for stability and progress in South Asia and in the world at large,” he told the Senate.

His Republican co-sponsor, Richard Lugar, said, “This agreement is the most important strategic diplomatic initiative undertaken by President Bush.” 

Even optimistic Indian officials had given the bill only a “50-50” chance of success. Analysts ascribed the lop-sided vote
to a number of reasons.

One was intense lobbying by the White House, the Indian-American community and a number of US corporate interests. The US-India Business Council hailed the agreement, saying as many as 27,000 high quality jobs each year for the next 10 years will be created by it in the US nuclear industry alone. But diplomats say the US technology and defence industries were among the most effective voices in favour of the deal.

Another reason, says Professor Sumit Ganguly, a University of Illinois political scientist, “is that India does not, for the most part, provoke much adverse reaction in domestic constituencies.” Even those who voted against the bill insisted they supported closer Indo-US relations.

The arguments against were couched in terms of the effect of giving India an exemption from the nuclear non-proliferation regime. They foundered, says Jawaharlal Nehru University physicist and nonproliferation expert R. Rajaraman, “because geopolitics is now more important than nation-state proliferation. The proliferation threat lies in nuclear material getting into the hands of terrorists.”

There were some surprises during the voting. Senator Hillary Clinton, co-chair of the Friends of India caucus, voted in favour of one of the killer amendments which would have restricted US nuclear assistance to India to civilian fields. So did senator Bob Menendez, a long-standing member of the India Caucus. Michael Krepon of the Henry Stimson Centre, and a strong opponent of the deal, explained, “Congress members try to have it both ways, rather than to have to choose between India and nonproliferation.”
(With agency inputs)