Indo-US nuclear deal: Timing it right

Posted in India | 10-Nov-06 | Author: Siddharth Srivastava

NEW DELHI: Though seen as a vote against Washington’s Iraq policy, there is considerable speculation about the fate of the Indo-US nuclear deal after the mid-term elections in USA that has produced a ``hung’’ Senate and a Democrat majority in the House of Representatives.

While a new US Congress has been voted in, it is the previous one that will meet next week in what is termed as a lame-duck session. It is this slim window that New Delhi hopes will lead to the final stamp of approval of the pact. In the outgoing chambers Republicans have a 230-202 majority in the House of Representatives and a 55-45 majority in the Senate.

While the House overwhelmingly approved the draft bill in July this year, a vote on the deal has been stuck in the Senate for the last two sessions. The bill will have to undergo the complete cycle once more if not passed before the new Senate assembles. The Democrats have gained control of the US House of Representatives after 12 years.

There is some cheer in India as US President George W Bush said at a press conference in the White House following the defeat of Republican candidates that getting the India-US nuclear deal through the Senate was a priority.

"I'm trying to get the Indian deal done, the Vietnam deal done, and the budgets done (during the lame-duck session)," Bush said.

Further, two crucial Democrats on foreign affairs have told the Associated Press in Washington of their sustained backing to share civilian nuclear technology with India.

Sen. Joe Biden, top Democrat on the Senate's foreign affairs panel, has said lawmakers were "ready to go with the India bill" and that he hoped it would be considered when Congress returns to work next week. Rep. Tom Lantos, Biden’s counterpart in the house panel, has also said that the deal is "very much in our national interest." He called it "a historic event. Whether we do it in December or February is really secondary, but I am convinced that we should do it."

According to reports, the current efforts are for the legislation to be placed before the Senate on Thursday next week, then discussed for two days and passed by vote on Friday. The lame-duck session will then disperse for the Thanksgiving break and re-assemble the first week of December.

In this second period the Senate and House versions of the bill will be reconciled and the full Houses will vote on the final bill again.

However, this tight schedule leaves no room for error or further debate due to which both Indian and US diplomats involved with the pact are hoping for the best.

Otherwise, most officials and analysts agree that the nuclear deal should ultimately be passed by the US Congress given the bipartisan support, but there will need to be another round of vote, discussions, perhaps amendments that may not be palatable to the domestic politics in India.

In short, the historic deal that seeks to recognize India as the nuclear exception of the world stands a very good chance of being delayed quite a bit by non-proliferation protagonists, though the long-term upswing in Indo-US relations should not be affected as there is broad agreement among US policy makers about engaging with India.

One reason why Senate majority leader Bill Frist did not succeed in introducing the bill in the previous session was the large number of amendments (to the original agreement signed by Bush-Manmohan) the Democrats wanted. Despite lobbying by India, especially after then foreign secretary Shyam Saran’s visit to Washington in September, Senate minority leader Harry Reid cut the amendments only from 18 to 17. Emboldened Democrats, perhaps to show down a Republican policy initiative, could now be more insistent about the changes.

This could well shred the stout defense of the pact as well as improved Indo-US ties that the incumbent Congress-led government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been striving at.

According to officials, New Delhi will not be too comfortable to let the volatile debate on the nuclear issue slide too close to domestic general elections scheduled for 2009. There is still a long road ahead beyond the US at the Nuclear Supplier’s Group, in order to get the nuclear exemptions in place.

Although there is a big constituency of middle section voters that support’s Manmohan’s pro-US agenda, the Congress party is averse to antagonize chunks of the Indian population, that include the Muslims and poorer sections yet unaffected by liberal economic policies, who continue to be virulent in their anti-US views.

In such as situation New Delhi is keen to seal the deal as one of its significant achievements without it being a stand out feature of its tenure.

It would thus ideally want the pact to be out of the limelight as soon as possible, in order to highlight other aspects, including steps at social equity.

If the recent civic polls in the large state of Uttar Pradesh are any indication, there seems to be a coalescing of upper caste votes against the Congress, which is being interpreted as a vote against reserving seats for lower caste students in prestigious educational institutions. Competitive and populist electoral politics will begin to hold sway perhaps less than a year from now.

Sources say that there is an understanding between the government and crucial coalition partners, the left parties on aspects of foreign policy.

While the left has agreed not to derail the nuclear pact in Parliament, New Delhi has promised that it will not be harsh on Chinese firms investing in India.

Such an arrangement will, however, unravel, once the elections approach, as the Congress and leftist parties have to fight it out on their own in the electoral battlefield.

In his first major announcement, India’s new foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee, has said this week that there is no move to deny entry of Chinese companies from India. Mukherjee, a known proponent of improved Sino-Indian ties said that denial of permission to any single firm did not mean that a nation as a whole was barred from doing business here. The left, it may be recalled, are anti-US and pro-China in their thinking.

Yet, security experts are not in agreement about the fate of the nuclear deal, as highlighted by a debate in the newspaper Daily News & Analysis. "It is certain the Democrats will push for amendments, many of which India cannot agree to, unless the government wants to buckle under pressure because they want the deal at all costs," said Bharat Karnad.

But, senior strategic analyst K Subrahmanyam said: "The elections will have no impact on the nuclear deal. Of the 435 lawmakers from the House who had to fight the elections, just 20 lost. This means there are just 20 new lawmakers in the House which voted overwhelmingly for the nuclear deal earlier this year."

What New Delhi seems to be fretting about the most, is the time factor.

(Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist; Website: www.siddharthsrivastava.com)

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