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Nuclear deal done at last moment

Two senior atomic energy scientists were part of the negotiating Indian team, reports Shekhar Bhatia.

india Updated: Mar 04, 2006 10:16 IST
Shekhar Bhatia
Shekhar Bhatia

Till about an hour before US President George W Bush reached Hyderabad House for his meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Thursday, the Indo-US deal was still being frantically negotiated.

Right from July 18 last year when India and the US signed a joint statement in Washington, the prime minister’s brief to Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran and his team was clear: don’t deviate from that statement, don’t compromise our strategic programme, and include the scientific community in the consensus. Two senior Department of Atomic Energy scientists, Ravi Grover and Raghu Raman, were part of this negotiating team right through.

Over the next seven months, many sticky issues were sorted out: how to separate India’s nuclear programme into civilian and military; just because a strategic reactor also produces electricity and is linked to the power grid doesn’t necessarily make it civilian (and should therefore not be under safeguards); and what sort of safeguards will the civilian installations come under.

India's position was that since it will not have the status of a nuclear weapons state — something it would have ideally liked — even after an Indo-US agreement, and nor will it be in the category of a non-nuclear weapons state, there should be a separate set of IAEA safeguards for its civilian nuclear installations. There were other issues like defining minimum nuclear deterrent.

By Wednesday, the day before the Manmohan-Bush meeting, most of the deal had been wrapped up and the two sides had reached agreement on most strategic and sensitive issues.

But one sticking point remained: the US insisted that the nuclear facilities India intended to designate as civilian should remain under IAEA safeguards in perpetuity.

The first hint that there was a hitch came as Air Force One landed at Shannon en route to New Delhi. Briefing American media on board, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: "And the one thing that is absolutely necessary is that any agreement would assure that once India has decided to put reactors on safeguards, that it remains permanently under safeguards."

India, citing its bad experience with fuel supplies for the Tarapur nuclear plant, refused to concede that point — unless the US gave an iron-clad guarantee that India's fuel supply needs, too, would be met in perpetuity. Not only that, India wanted this commitment to be written into US law.

Top-level Indian sources confirmed that there was a serious roadblock.

"We got stuck on this," said a source. India was refusing to budge from its position: if there are to be permanent safeguards, there must be permanent supply. Nothing more, nothing less.

In the endgame, India spelt out its position:

* The US must ensure fuel supply.

* This assurance must be ratified by the US Congress, which must also amend the Atomic Energy Act to give it a legal status.

* The assurance must also be incorporated in a trilateral agreement between India, the US and the IAEA.

* And as a final guarantee, there should be a document binding a group of "friendly countries" to ensure fuel supply in case the US is unable to meet its commitment. Through separate negotiations with some key EU member-states and Russia, India has already obtained certain assurances on this score.

The discussions continued through the night.

And in the morning, just before Bush reached Hyderabad House, the word was out: "We have a deal."

Later in the day, when US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns was asked, "How late were you negotiating this morning?" his reply was: "Until about 10.30 am." That's just an hour before Prime Minister Singh and President Bush met.

First Published: Mar 04, 2006 01:03 IST