FRONTLINE John Cherian RAJEEV BHATT A deal’s progress

COVER STORY A deal’s progress Volume 23 – Issue 23 :: Nov. 18-Dec. 01, 2006

“Still a long way to go.” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

IMMEDIATELY after the landslide victory of the Democrats, there was considerable speculation in the United States and India about the fate of the “nuclear deal” between the two countries. President George W. Bush has touted the deal as one of his biggest foreign policy achievements and pledged to see it through Congress and the Senate.

The Bush administration’s conduct of foreign policy was the major issue for the Democrats on the campaign trail. Besides, the Democratic Party has many Representatives and Senators with strong views on the issue of nuclear non-proliferation. Former President Jimmy Carter had told The Washington Post on March 29 that the proposed nuclear deal with India “is just one more step in opening the Pandora’s box of nuclear proliferation”.

In his first press conference after the polls, Bush emphasised that the “nuclear deal” is being given top priority in the “lame duck” session of the Congress. The Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement passed through various stages of legislation in the past 16 months. The House of Representatives cleared the proposed Bill, okaying the deal, in June. Three more steps remained for it to become legal. The first of these was passing it in the Senate. After the loss of Republican control over both the Houses, there were doubts about whether the issue would figure in the crowded agenda. Some legislators had called for a postponement of the vote until the new Congress convened in January. Such a move would have meant starting the whole legislative process from scratch.

Things looked grim from New Delhi’s standpoint for a brief period, when the “lame duck” session of the Senate rebuffed President Bush’s plea to approve the proposal to grant Vietnam permanent normal trade relations. Vietnam, along with India, is among the countries Washington is wooing as part of its plan of building an anti-China coalition.

The Congressional Research Service prepared a report that questioned India’s non-proliferation record and commented adversely on India’s relationship with Iran. U.S. experts on non-proliferation once again issued statements warning that the exception being made in the case of India would make it difficult for the U.S. to deal with countries like North Korea and Iran.

Bush had assured Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on phone that he would press for a quick passage of the Bill in the Senate after the congressional elections. To the relief of the Indian government, when the nuclear deal came up for a vote in the Senate it came to be viewed as a bipartisan issue, with leading Democratic Senators emerging as the biggest champions of enhanced relations with India. Among them was Senator Joseph Biden, who will be the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

On November 16, the Senate approved the deal 85-12 on cooperating with India. Bush hailed the passage of the Bill, adding that it would bring India into “the non-proliferation mainstream”.

However, the Bill requires India to cooperate actively with Washington in its goal of preventing Iran from acquiring the expertise to produce even nuclear power. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told the media in New Delhi on the day the Senate passed the Bill that his country had no objections to the nuclear deal. At the same time, Mottaki said that he expected India-Iran ties to grow further.

New Delhi expressed its satisfaction with the smooth passage of the Bill in the Senate but cautioned that more needed to be done. Manmohan Singh, while welcoming the development, said that there was still a long way to go before nuclear cooperation between India and the U.S. becomes a “reality”. External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said the passage of the Bill reflected the “very broad bipartisan support”.

The Bill has to be jointly voted by Congress after the Senate and the House meet, sometime in early December, to reconcile different amendments made when either House passed the Bill.

Though the so-called “killer amendments” proposed by some Senators do not figure in the Bill, sections of the Indian scientific establishment are sceptical about some aspects of the Bill. Spokespersons for the Left parties said they would not accept any compromises from the Indian government. CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat said the Bill in its current form contained provisions that were objectionable.

John Cherian