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Pact in no man's land if delayed

Many Washington observers wonder if the US political environment will be able to absorb further delay in the N deal, reports Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

world Updated: Oct 22, 2007 00:55 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times

The Manmohan Singh government is sending signals to the Bush administration that it needs more time while it looks for the political wiggle room to complete the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement.

However, many Washington observers wonder if the US political environment will be able to absorb further delay.

Until the Prime Minister indicated his government would put off negotiating the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreement, it had been expected the safeguards agreement would be completed in time for a Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) meeting Washington had planned for November 11.

The White House had told the Democratic congressional leadership that after an NSG okay, it expected to be able to insert the final vote on the nuclear deal into the US Congress by January-February next year.

A new timeline would push things deep into the no-man's-land of the US presidential campaign. "New Delhi will require at least two weeks to complete a safeguards negotiation with the IAEA and a minimum of 45 days' notice before the deal is formally tabled for NSG consideration," notes Anupam Srivastava, a nonproliferation expert at the University of Georgia.

If the Manmohan government waits to kick off the process until the passage of the budget, Anupam says, Washington would have to make a formal request for an extraordinary NSG session in June.

All this would push the US Congress's final vote, which would have to be preceded by weeks of committee formalities and waiting periods, into the autumn. By this time one-third of the Senate, the entire House of Representatives and the US presidential candidates would all be campaigning for votes.

"You're talking about trying to get legislation through in September, a time when legislators are desperate to adjourn and go run for elections. Vulnerability to demagoguery is at its height," says Teresita C Schaffer, a South Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Ashley Wills of the Washington lobby firm WilmerHale and a former State Department India hand, says: "In an election year in the US, no significant legislation will likely to be able to pass before this Congress's term ends."

The onus would then lie on George W Bush using the dregs of his authority to muster the vote in Congress. "By this time the administration will be on its last legs," says Sumit Ganguly, political scientist from Indiana University-Bloomington.

And that assumes the White House is still interested by then. The nuclear deal was "a very innovative departure from decades-old policy and requires very high-level attention on a steady basis," warns Walter Andersen of the School of Advanced International Studies.

"Given the apparent unwillingness on the Indian side to push very hard in the face of political obstacles, senior US officials may conclude such a push is not worth the effort," Andersen added.

AK Mago, head of the USINDIA Forum and a key Indian-American lobbyist for the deal, believes trying to get US legislators to consider the deal when they are focused on elections is "unrealistic". "But if the Indian government has no other choice, then it has to believe in miracles and hope it happens," he adds philosophically. Schaffer feels one can't say "never" about this succeeding but concludes: "This certainly is the timetable from hell."

First Published: Oct 22, 2007 00:43 IST