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Saran hopeful of Congress support

Foreign Secretary said after his talks he felt "very encouraged" that there would be much stronger support for the deal.

india Updated: Apr 01, 2006 10:52 IST

As the draft legislation to facilitate the US-India civil nuclear energy deal runs the gauntlet of Congressional misgivings, Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran said after his talks he felt "very encouraged" that there would be much stronger support for the deal.

Saran, who concluded his three-day visit to Washington on Friday, his first since President George W Bush visited India March 1-3 and clinched the deal, met several influential lawmakers to allay fears over the deal.

He did encounter questions over whether the deal would help India step up its production of nuclear weapons.

At a news conference Saran said lawmakers had questions about whether the deal would undermine global non-proliferation efforts. Some of them also asked if India would step up the production of its nuclear weapons.

On both, Saran held up India's exemplary record over the past 30 years in nuclear restraint.

Though Saran gave his visit a broader context than just the nuclear deal, he conceded that it had become the centrepiece of bilateral relations.

"The general sense in the US Congress is one of widespread support for the evolving India-US partnership in economic, science and technology and energy areas. Certain concerns related to nuclear non-proliferation were raised," he said.

Saran said many of the lawmakers were "pleasantly surprised how quickly the bilateral relations had turned around".

"They are all very excited about the transformation in our ties," he said.

Asked if there was any suggestion to amend some of the features of the deal to make it acceptable, Saran replied in the negative, saying, "I feel very encouraged that there will be much stronger support for the deal."

Saran also tried to put the bilateral relations in a context broader than just the nuclear deal. He said India and the US were partnering in many areas such as clean fuel technologies. He also said that the two countries would jointly organise an investment summit.

On a specific question of how bilateral relations would be affected in the event that the draft legislation to amend US nuclear control laws was not passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives, he said: "It is not as if everything will fall by the wayside, but because the deal has become a symbol, a negative outcome would mean a loss in terms of expectations."

He said the whole exercise of reaching the nuclear deal and making it work for both the countries was "very complex and at a very delicate state".

Apart from meeting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and holding at least two extensive sessions with Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, Saran met some powerful lawmakers. They included Representative Henry Hyde, a Republican leader from Illinois who heads the House International Relations Committee, Representative Tom Lantos, a Democrat of California, Rep Joe Wilson, Republican from South Carolina, Senator Joe Biden, Democrat from Delaware and Senator Barak Obama, Democrat from Illinois.

Meanwhile, there is acute consciousness among Indian diplomats about the fact that a vast majority of the lawmakers still remain "undecided" on whether to support the deal or not.

They have also noted the uncomfortable fact that the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, a grouping of presumably pro-India lawmakers from both parties, has not come out strongly in favour of the deal.

"A lot of them are still sitting on the fence," one diplomatic source said.

While it is hard to set any specific timeline for the passage of the draft legislation, India is keen that it is concluded by July.

What might affect that timeline is the internal political dynamics in this country where a president running on a dangerously low level of political capital finds it hard to push such a significant deal.

A restive House and Senate, especially members belonging to the Democratic Party, could stand in the way of the deal if only to make a larger political point to the president.

First Published: Apr 01, 2006 08:54 IST