Indian Nuclear Deal With US Clears Domestic Opposition

NEW DELHI – The controversial United States-India nuclear cooperation agreement has overcome a major domestic obstacle in the form of a threat by India’s major opposition parties to press for a Parliamentary resolution which would have tied the Manmohan Singh government’s hands in final-stage bargaining with Washington.

However, the deal, which legitimizes and normalizes India’s nuclear weapons and promotes civil nuclear cooperation with it, may have to clear more hurdles before it is translated into legal and practical arrangements in the U.S. and bodies like the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Yet, the chances of its going through have greatly improved.

”This is doubtless a significant, although not unexpected, victory for the Indian government,” says M.V. Ramana, an independent nuclear analyst at the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Environment and Development, Bangalore.

The victory was not effortless. On Thursday, Prime Minister Singh made a half-emotional 80 minute-long intervention in the Upper House of Parliament, defending the deal and promising that he would not “deviate” from agreements inked with President George W. Bush in July 2005 and this past March.

Following this, the bulk of the opposition parties dropped their insistence on a “Sense of the House” resolution, although the right-wing ultra-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continued to express reservations.

The opposition had been pressing for such a motion because it wanted to counter efforts in the U.S. Congress to impose certain conditions for the deal’s approval, which go beyond the two Bush-Singh agreements.

Last month, the Senate and House of Representative foreign relations committees separately finalized two texts of resolutions pertaining to the deal after much lobbying and wrangling. The House passed the resolution on July 26. The Senate is likely to vote on its text soon.

After the vote, the two resolutions will have to be “reconciled” before the entire Congress can approve a fresh text and grant the U.S. president a special one-time authority to waive certain clauses in U.S. domestic laws that bar nuclear cooperation with any country which has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), or which runs a nuclear weapons program and/or has conducted a nuclear explosion. (India is not an NPT signatory and conducted nuclear tests eight years ago.)

The toughest bargaining between the U.S. And India is expected at the “reconciliation” stage. The Bush administration is likely to make a no-holds-barred effort to whittle down the additional conditions placed on the deal by Congress.

“There is an inherent tension between Bush’s goal of recruiting India as a strategic partner by offering it this unique nuclear deal, and the constraints under which Congress works,” Raman told IPS. “Congress will emphasize institutional arrangements that are generic, not India-specific. It will do so by citing U.S. precedents. But Bush wants to do something altogether new, beyond precedents.”

The U.S. And Indian governments have gone out of their way to persuade their lawmakers to support the deal. In the U.S., Bush officials have downplayed India’s noncompliance with the NPT, emphasized her nonproliferation record, and stressed the benefits of allying with a rising economic and military power.

It is the Bush administration, not the Indian government, which originally proposed the agreement. Bush himself has been keen on it. He told Singh on arrival in his first-ever visit to India in March: “Prime Minister, I want that deal.”

The Singh government recruited sections of the media and the “strategic community” to campaign for the deal. Several newspapers have run a crusade for it, citing various real or imagined merits, including the indispensability of nuclear power for India’s growth and energy “independence,” access to uranium (which is running out in India) for weapons, and a special relationship with the world’s sole superpower.

It also orchestrated (partial) opposition to the deal, in particular to its modification, through serving and retired Atomic Energy Commission officials.

On Feb. 6, AEC chairman Anil Kakodkar gave an extraordinary interview to an Indian daily, in which he opposed the inclusion of fast-breeder reactors in the civilian facilities India must place under IAEA inspections. Less than a month later, the U.S. conceded his demand.

Just three days ago, timed on India’s Independence Day, eight retired AEC officials issued a joint statement directed at parliamentarians, expressing strong opposition to U.S. Congress-proposed modifications to the deal.

This will help Manmohan Singh argue that there must be no change in the “goalposts” set by the earlier agreements; such change won’t be acceptable to India’s democracy.

The nuclear scientists’ arguments and the opposition’s support to them will figure prominently in the last-mile bargaining between the two governments. Singh cited these and similar objections when he met Bush last month at St. Petersburg.

During his intervention yesterday, Singh said that any “deviation” from past agreements “will not be acceptable to us.” There is no question of our strategic nuclear autonomy being compromised and new and unacceptable conditions being introduced.” He said “the central imperative” in India-U.S. discussions is “to ensure the complete and irreversible removal of existing restrictions imposed on India through iniquitous restrictive trading regimes.”

It won’t be easy for Singh to persuade Bush to drop all the Congress-stipulated conditions. Some of these are “internal” to the U.S., such as periodic certifications by the president that India is not diverting uranium to its weapons program. Some are “non-binding,” such as the demand that India join U.S. efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

However, the Congressional resolutions also impose some special India-specific obligations, or restrict India’s access to uranium enrichment and spent-fuel reprocessing technologies. They mandate a change in the sequence of steps India must take before Congress fully approves the deal.

For instance, India must get advance approval from the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and sign India-specific safeguards with the IAEA. (Under the earlier agreements, these steps would follow Congressional approval.)

“India’s effort will be directed at finessing these ‘external’ stipulations,” says Ramana. “There is plenty of scope for doing so. India can sign an IAEA Safeguards agreement, but will not enforce it till Congress approval comes through. It has time till 2008-10. Similarly, India is demanding that in return for perpetual safeguards, it must get guaranteed uninterrupted supply of nuclear fuel even if the U.S. backs out in case India conducts a test.”

Some of these arrangements will depend on the NSG. That remains a bit of an unknown. The group includes countries like China, the Nordic states, New Zealand and Ireland which are skeptical of the deal and oppose special exceptions for India in multilateral agreements.

“There is also the possibility that a future U.S. President will demand stricter compliance by India with various conditions than Bush,” says Ramana. “It’s not excluded that the deal could fall through if future political circumstances change.”

However, Singh says that he is aware of the risks and has decided to take them in India’s larger interests. His latest statements have substantially defused the AEC officials’ objections. Singh now enters the last phase of negotiations with his hands strengthened.

Meanwhile, it is becoming clear that the deal will not contribute to, but will detract from, the cause of nuclear disarmament. It will also promote nuclear power, an expensive and hazardous energy path on which there is no consensus in India.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.