Tight timelines threaten N-deal
Ashish Kumar Sen writes from Washington
External affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee on Tuesday admitted that efforts by the Manmohan Singh government’s Left partners to delay a civilian nuclear deal with the United States is “testing our patience.”
With US presidential elections in November, officials in President George W. Bush’s administration are getting increasingly anxious that New Delhi will not have the deal done in time.
Mukherjee, who wrapped up a series of high-level meetings sources described as “very good”, said he was aware of the tight timelines.
“Our government is interested in fructifying this cooperation because we are energy deficient and would like to have a clean source of energy,” he said. The Left, Mukherjee noted, “has its own ideological perception.”
“Some political parties supporting the government from outside feel we should not have this arrangement with the USA. They also feel we should explore clean coal technology,” he said.
New Delhi has finalised the language of the text of the safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency but the process of signing it is yet to be completed, the minister said.
Sources told The Tribune that the minister relayed the highlights of this agreement, reached after five rounds of negotiations with the IAEA, to the Bush administration. “Washington is now formally reviewing it to see if it will pass muster before taking it forward both within the US (in Congress) and with the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group) members,” said a source.
The source added that India has “put in some language (in the text), which Washington wants to run by its legal team. The review will be in terms of sustainability of that language from the non-proliferation point of view.”
Mukherjee has maintained that a minority government should not sign a deal of this magnitude. On Tuesday he explained his position saying that even if a minority government does sign “an important international agreement, if it is subsequently not honoured by a succeeding government it will be an embarrassment.”
He said the Singh government was trying to avoid such a situation, but admitted, “It is testing our patience.” Asked whether the government was prepared to sacrifice itself for the nuclear deal, Mukherjee said it was “not a question of sacrificing the government or sacrificing the deal. We are trying to find a meeting ground.”
“Events have their own momentum we are interested in pursuing this deal,” he asserted.
Mukherjee met Bush at the White House on Monday afternoon and followed that up with a one-on-one dinner meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
“At this juncture it is difficult for me to indicate any timeframe by which we will be able to complete this process,” Mukherjee said. He said the government was trying to resolve the problems with its Left allies “but it will take some more time.”
Meanwhile, an official pointed out that it was very unusual for Bush to meet the minister in the Oval Office on Easter Monday, a day on which the White House lawns were full of children participating in the annual Easter egg roll.
The civilian nuclear deal came up during the course of Mukherjee’s meetings in Washington but officials point out that this was among a wide range of other issues, including the political upheaval in Pakistan and violence in Tibet, that were discussed.
Mukherjee brought a draft of the IAEA safeguards agreement with him to show to the US administration, according to a source. As for the future of the deal, the source said, “There isn’t a foolproof system on which you can be optimistic or pessimistic.”
Noting that both leaderships in Washington and New Delhi have invested a lot of capital into the civilian nuclear deal, another source said just the “breathtaking audacity” of the deal ensures that it is still a priority in the relationship.
But the minister was also given a clear message not to expect the next US administration to resume where the Bush administration leaves off.
With presidential and congressional elections scheduled for November, time is of the essence in Washington. Beneath the smiles and warm handshakes at the photo-ops there is a tense realisation that the investment into the nuclear deal may come to a naught if stalling by the Left parties in India makes New Delhi miss crucial deadlines at the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
“You cannot think about the deal if it doesn’t go through now,” said a source pointing out that if a Democratic administration even considered it they would add amendments that would be rejected by India.