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Put it on slow fire

Going slow and by taking a breather to build majority support around the Indo-US Civilian Nuclear Cooperation will not endanger the initiative as none of the next steps are time-sensitive, writes Pallava Bagla.

india Updated: Aug 28, 2007 23:48 IST

Can the Indo-US nuclear deal be halted in its tracks without jeopardising it? Yes. The next steps have no time-sensitive hurdles to be crossed. Succumbing to artificial timelines where political consensus is an illusion will only sink the deal further.

Halting the deal will not scuttle the effort. In fact, the time can be used to build majority support around an effort that promises a tectonic shift in global relations and radically redefines India’s position in the world order. While it is true that leaders in both countries might want to take advantage of the huge momentum built around the deal and seek to consummate it at the earliest, Indian as well as US lawmakers might seek a longer time to review it. Going slow to build majority support around the deal should not endanger the Indo-US Civilian Nuclear Cooperation initiative, as the next steps are not time-sensitive. If we view the deal over a three to four-year period, we will see that the passage of time has only made it more agreeable in both countries, with the political resolve only getting stronger.

The deal was initiated in 2004 when the NDA led by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee was in power in New Delhi and the Democrats led by President Bill Clinton were ruling the White House. Today, when the ‘agreed text’ has been finalised, the UPA led by PM Manmohan Singh of the Congress is in power here and the Republicans led by President George W. Bush are in the White House. There has been a change of governments in both countries but the deal has withstood the test of time and divergent political leanings.

As of now, having arrived at an ‘agreed text’ on the 123 Agreement with the US, which according to Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns conforms to the Henry Hyde Act of 2006, India’s biggest stumbling block is over. The next big move in the US is the passing of the Indo-US Civilian Nuclear Cooperation Agreement by an ‘up and down vote’, which can happen anytime though both countries will want this formality to be over before President George W. Bush demits office in early 2009. The Hyde Act was passed last winter with overwhelming bi-partisan support in both Houses on Capitol Hill. Therefore, one can expect that even if the regime changes in Washington DC, it will not affect the vote.

The next step for New Delhi is to negotiate an India-specific safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This can happen any time since there are no deadlines attached to it. India has negotiated several safeguards agreements with the IAEA in the past and even though this will have a language and formulation that is unique, it should not be a stumbling block. Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission Anil Kakodkar is slated to visit the IAEA for the General Conference in mid-September and steps towards finalising the India-specific safeguards agreement could well undertaken on the sidelines. But, as the PM told the Lok Sabha on August 13, “there is no change in our position that we would accept only IAEA safeguards on our civilian nuclear facilities. This would also be in a phased manner and as identified for that purpose in the Separation Plan, and only when all international restrictions on nuclear trade with India have been lifted. India will not take any irreversible steps with the IAEA prior to this”. While the IAEA board meets every quarter, an extraordinary meeting can easily be summoned at short notice.

In the continuing negotiations, the next step is the most difficult one. It involves the piercing of the nuclear cartel constituted in the past to contain India. New Delhi with the US acting its sherpa needs to approach the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group to get an ‘unconditional clearance’ by consensus in India's favour to start nuclear commerce with the world. Again, this is not time-bound. The NSG was scheduled to meet in May 2008, but according to reports, the US was hoping to convene an extra-ordinary meeting of the group to discuss India’s nuclear waiver. Since deliberations of the NSG, which is really an amorphous body, are never made public and all decisions are only by consensus, there are fears that China may thwart India’s efforts to get past this post.

Once all these steps have been completed, the US Congress will take up the ‘yes and no’ vote on the 123 Agreement. Debates can happen but no amendments are permitted, which is essentially a process of ratification of the bilateral treaty. Since the 123 Agreement according to the US negotiators conforms to the Hyde Act, there should be no trouble in its passage, even if the regime changes in Washington DC by the time the voting takes place.

Top nuclear negotiators suggest the only variation, if governments change in both countries by the time the 123 Agreement is operationalised, is in what they describe as ‘the creative interpretation of its details’. Hence, letting the deal to simmer on the hob may only make the deal more appetising for both countries.

Pallava Bagla is Science Editor, NDTV