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Nuclear deal in political coma

Prakash Karat says the UPA-Left panel, which is to examine the results of the safeguards, negotiations with the IAEA could take two to three months, reports Amit Baruah.
Hindustan Times | By Amit Baruah, New Delhi
UPDATED ON MAR 11, 2008 03:04 AM IST

After repeated attempts at resuscitation, the India-US civil nuclear deal, which showed signs of life in the last few months, has again slipped into a politically-induced coma. And, if the current window of opportunity closes, the calendar will ensure that it doesn’t go through in its current form.

On Sunday, CPI (M) general secretary Prakash Karat said the UPA-Left panel, which is to examine the results of the safeguards, negotiations with the IAEA, could take “two-three months” to discuss the issue.

Essentially, Karat was saying that they would sit on the IAEA issue at the panel, and ensure that the Americans, who have been talking of a May deadline given the November presidential elections, don’t have enough time to pilot the deal through the US Congress.

“In order to be able to have time to debate this and pass it (the nuclear deal) in the Senate, it would really probably have to be received somewhere in May, at the latest, in order to give time to be able to pass,” Senator John Kerry said here on February 20. This is precisely the timetable that Karat is hoping to torpedo. And he has the clout to do it.

In order to become reality, the deal has to clear at least four hurdles. First, and foremost, it must clear the UPA-Left panel, which is where Karat and the rest of the Left aim to halt the accord.

If, and there appears very little chance of that happening, the deal makes it through the panel, then India will signal to the IAEA an agreement on the draft, which then has to be circulated to all Agency board members before it can be “initialled”.

Third, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) will have to lift India-specific curbs on civil nuclear cooperation before New Delhi signs the safeguards agreement with the IAEA. This, India has been saying is a must, because it doesn’t want to put its reactors under safeguards and the NSG doesn't do away with restrictions on nuclear commerce with New Delhi.

Fourth, the “123 agreement” has to be approved by the US Congress in an “up-down” vote; with the Left signalling its all-out opposition there appears little chance of it happening by May. It would then have crossed the American congressional deadline. It’s also evident while the Congress can use the nuclear deal to beat the Left with (the compliment will surely be returned) in election season, a minority government will not have the international clout to push the deal through the IAEA and the NSG.

"We will have to get the Left's support because they are supporting the government. And if the government does not exist, how can there be an agreement?” External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said in an interview to Outlook magazine. “A minority government cannot, need not and should not sign a major agreement like this.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had spoken of the “compulsions” of a coalition government when US Defence Secretary Robert Gates raised the issue with him recently. Both sides apparently have a realistic view of where their agreement stands.

The civil nuclear deal, it appears, will have to be revived again by a new Indian government and a new US administration. But it will have to contend with an uncertain international environment.

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