One Last Push for India-US Nuke Deal

by , May 10, 2008

NEW DELHI – Faced with continuing domestic opposition to the United States-India nuclear cooperation deal, the Indian government has launched "one last push" to complete negotiations before the window of opportunity slams shut.

But the chances of success for its latest bid appear to be no higher than they were some weeks ago.

Going by the deliberations yesterday of a special joint committee on the deal, formed by the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and its Left allies, obstacles to its passage remain in place. The eighth meeting of the committee, established last year, failed to produce agreement.

At the meeting, UPA representatives asked the Left to give the government "clearance" to finalize an India-specific agreement on inspections (safeguards) for civilian nuclear facilities, which it recently inked with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The agreement is a precondition for approval of the deal by the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) and its subsequent ratification by the U.S. Congress.

However, the Left demanded further clarifications on the safeguards agreement before it offers its response. Although the government has promised to give these clarifications in the next few days, it seems unlikely that the committee’s next meeting, scheduled for May 28, will clinch the issue.

The Left seems to be in no mood to dilute its opposition to the deal. In its view, the deal is an unequal bargain and will draw India into the U.S. strategic orbit and compromise her sovereignty.

"Unless the UPA-Left differences are overcome by the end of May, we are likely to miss the chance to put up the agreement for approval by the IAEA Board of Governors, which is due to meet from June 2 to 6," says a member of the UPA negotiating team, who insisted on anonymity.

The next Board meeting after June is only scheduled for Sept. 22. By then, the U.S. domestic political timetable to discuss the deal in Congress will have run its course. The "realistic" deadline for sending it to Congress is generally understood to be no later than July, after which the election agenda will overwhelm domestic U.S. politics.

The government’s current gambit is to try to delink the safeguards agreement from another crucial component of the deal, namely, a bilateral agreement signed last year, called the "123 agreement" after Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1954.

The Left parties object to the "123 agreement" on the ground that it restricts the scope of U.S.-India civilian nuclear cooperation and affects India’s strategic interests, as well as her sovereignty in foreign policy-making.

They also hold that the "123 agreement" is anchored in a special law enacted by the U.S. Congress at the end of 2006, called the Henry J. Hyde Act, which imposes several obligations and restrictions on India that are unrelated to its nuclear program.

Supporters of the deal recently launched a campaign against the Left. They argue that the Left should not logically oppose the IAEA safeguards agreement because it is independent of the "123 agreement" and not U.S.-specific. The safeguards agreement is necessary if India is to have nuclear commerce with other countries such as Russia and France, which the Left favors.

Some other advocates of the deal, including India’s former arms-control negotiator Arundhati Ghose, who famously opposed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva in 1996, have also accused the Left of working to obstruct the deal for "unashamedly ideological" reasons and thus forgo opportunities to develop India’s nuclear power potential.

The supporters recently got a boost from a somewhat unlikely source, former National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra, considered a close confidant of former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee of the main opposition, the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

On April 27, Mishra, who had earlier opposed the nuclear deal, executed a U-turn and said that India should sign it and that not doing so would have "harmful effects." This directly contradicts the BJP’s stand.

However, Mishra’s support for the deal came too late. He was promptly repudiated by the BJP’s top leaders, including former home minister Lal Krishna Advani and former foreign minister Jaswant Singh. Vajpayee, who is ailing, has not spoken on the issue.

The deal’s advocates earlier this week also seized an opportunity offered by a statement issued by Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) states that are party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which were meeting in Geneva in the preparatory committee for the 2010 NPT review conference. The statement called for "complete prohibition" of any kind of nuclear cooperation with NPT non-signatories.

It said that "recent developments, in particular, the nuclear cooperation agreement signed by a nuclear weapons state [the U.S.] with a non-party to the NPT [India] is a matter of great concern." The statement was strongly backed by Egypt, Indonesia, and Iran.

The deal’s proponents cite this as an attempt by other countries, including those of the NAM, of which India has been a leading member, to scuttle the deal and impair India’s ambitious nuclear power development program. They argue that allowing this will not be compatible with the Left’s own support for the program.

"It is true that India’s major Left parties find themselves somewhat in the spot here because they don’t categorically oppose nuclear power, as they should," argues Achin Vanaik, a professor of international relations and global politics at Delhi University. "But that does not answer the Left’s questions about the content of the IAEA safeguards agreement."

The Left has not been shown the text of the agreement on the ground that that would be a breach of the negotiation process. But it has raised a number of issues about the agreement, in particular whether it addresses India’s concerns about uninterrupted fuel supply, transfer of technology, reciprocity of obligations, and implications for India’s foreign and security policies.

M.V. Ramana, a nuclear affairs analyst based at the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in the Environment and Development in Bangalore argues that "there is a problem here because the IAEA is not a supplier of nuclear fuel. Nor can it uphold or guarantee the ‘right’ that India demands to build a strategic fuel reserve and to take ‘corrective measures’ in case fuel supplies are suspended."

The questions raised by the Left are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

"At the end of the day," says Vanaik, "the critical issue is that of the political balance of power. The UPA, which is facing protests because of rising prices and a massive agrarian crisis, seems to be in no position to confront the Left and risk losing its support, which is crucial to its survival in parliament."

(Inter Press Service)

Read more by Praful Bidwai