New Life in US-India Nuclear Deal

By Deepak Mahaan | July 8, 2008 | 6:27 AM EDT

New Delhi ( – After months of stalemate, the troubled U.S.-India nuclear cooperation agreement appears to be moving forward again, although it remains unclear whether it will get through the required steps -- including congressional approval -- before the end of the Bush administration.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is heading for the G-8 summit in Hokkaido, Japan, where he is expected to tell President Bush that the agreement is back on track.
The deal, which will allow India to buy nuclear technology and fuel despite not having signed key nonproliferation agreements, is considered a significant step towards strengthening ties between the West and the world’s most populous democracy.
Singh told reporters India would approach the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “very soon” for a safeguards agreement – a key requirement for the process to move ahead.
The IAEA’s board reportedly may meet to consider the issue as soon as July 28.
Singh also affirmed that, following intensive political lobbying, his government has sufficient support in parliament to push the deal through and does not face the prospect of early elections.
There have been concerns that the coalition government could fall since its communist allies had threatened to withdraw support over their opposition to the nuclear agreement.
Traditionally, Indian communists are wary of U.S. policies and believe the nuclear agreement will erode India’s sovereignty and independent foreign policy. The Communist Party of India is also unhappy that the government will not reveal beforehand the proposed text it will put before the IAEA.
On Tuesday, communist parties announced they were withdrawing their support for the government.
Despite the months of delays, the prime minister said he had been assured that once India goes to the IAEA, “the process will move pretty fast.”
Before the deal can go before the U.S. Congress, India will have to obtain a special exemption from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a 45-nation body that controls the export of materials that have nuclear applications.
In Japan, Singh will have the opportunity to discuss the issue with the leaders of a number of NSG member states, which include the G8 countries as well as other NSG members whose leaders will be in Hokkaido, including China and Australia.
Citing its record as a “responsible nuclear power,” India will push for a straightforward NSG exemption that would not hinder its right to future nuclear weapons testing despite the fact that it is not a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Singh’s Congress Party appears to have fended off the danger of an early election by wooing support from unexpected quarters, a longstanding rival regional party called Samajwadi, which draws its support from Muslims and lower caste Indians.
With opposition parties accusing the Congress Party of supporting the “imperial designs of Bush regime waging war against the Muslim world,” achieving Muslim support for the agreement is something of a coup for Singh.
A leading Islamic organization, Jamait-e-Ulema Hind, condemned attempts to give a Muslim dimension to the deal.
“Whether the deal is in the national interest or not is for scientists and politicians to decide [but] it is wrong to link a community with it,” said the group’s secretary, Kalimullah Khan Quasmi.
The Samajwadi Party says it considers the agreement to be in the national interest and not “anti-Muslim.”
Washington’s proposal to resume civilian nuclear cooperation – frozen since India began developing nuclear weapons in the 1970s – forms part of a strategy, outlined in 2005, to help energy-hungry India become “a major world power” in the 21st century.
The State Department has been warning in recent months that time was running out for the current U.S. Congress to consider ratifying the deal, although officials have said that it could be taken up by the next administration and Congress.
( International Editor Patrick Goodenough contributed to this report.)

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