M A I N   N E W S

Govt clearing roadblocks, Pranab tells Rice
Ashish Kumar Sen writes from Washington

External affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee today reiterated New Delhi’s interest in implementing a landmark civilian nuclear deal with Washington, but admitted that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s coalition government was dealing with some “political problems”.

Addressing a joint press briefing with the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the Benjamin Franklin Room at the State Department, Mukherjee said Manmohan Singh government was “currently engaged in resolving these problems.”

Mukherjee met Rice earlier on Monday and was to meet her again for dinner later in the day. His schedule was packed with meetings, the most significant among them being with President George W. Bush and Rice’s one time deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley. He would also be attending a closed-door meeting with policy analysts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Rice and Mukherjee also discussed the situation in Burma and violence in Tibet. The minister asserted that Tibetan refugees in India, including their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, were “not entitled to carry on political activities just as Indian citizens living in other countries are not allowed to.”

He maintained that these Tibetans were expected to follow “the law of the land.”

Rice denied that the crisis in Tibet had created a rift in US-India ties. US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent meeting with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala had upset China and some members of the Left in India. Rice said the Dalai Lama “is someone who is respected” and a “moderate voice” that should be engaged. She said the Dalai Lama could “play a more favourable role given his belief in non-violence.”

While critics of the deal in the US complain that the nuclear deal will blow a hole in America’s commitment to non-proliferation, in India, the ruling coalition’s Communist allies worry that India is handing over its nuclear sovereignty to Washington.

With Bush’s second and final term in office drawing to a close and presidential elections set for November, the Bush administration is growing increasingly anxious about wrapping up the deal.

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors and the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group must approve India-specific exemptions before the deal is sent back to the US Congress for its final seal of approval.

Mukherjee said India had completed discussions with the IAEA but the agreement is “yet to be initialled and approved by the (IAEA) Board of Governors.” Before that step is checked off the list the Manmohan Singh government must allay the concerns of its Left partners.

Mukherjee said the government was “engaged” with these members. Rice said she and the minister had a brief discussion on the nuclear agreement and she contended the deal is a good one. Many analysts and some within the Bush administration believe a failure to conclude the agreement could give a setback to the current momentum in US-India relations.

Teresita Schaffer, director of the South Asia programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said if the agreement doesn’t go through “there will inevitably be misgivings and some feeling that India wasn’t really ready for the big league.”

“Seen from Washington’s angle, this is a very sweet deal. A lot of Americans will have trouble seeing how it could generate such controversy in India,” she said.

Schaffer pointed out that both sides are “not dealing with a deadline artificially imposed by the US government but with a timeline resulting from the legal requirements that the US government is subject to.”

Congressional sources say the deal must be returned to the US Congress by June so that lawmakers can act on it by July.

US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs, Richard Boucher said in an interview with this correspondent that “time is very, very tight” for the deal to be completed.

“It’s still possible to fit into the timeline but every passing day is making it more difficult,” Schaffer said.

Robert Einhorn, however, didn’t share the sense of urgency and said “there is still plenty of time” to get the deal done. “If by the end of June, the Indian government and the IAEA board can approve the India-IAEA safeguards agreement and the Nuclear Suppliers Group can approve an exception for India, then the US administration can submit the US-India 123 Agreement (which governs the nuclear agreement) to the Congress with sufficient time to consider and approve it before the Congress adjourns in early fall, probably September, to allow members of Congress to campaign for re-election,”said Einhorn, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for non-proliferation and currently at CSIS.



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