Let's leave the political implications of the sudden and strange alliance between the Congress and the slippery duo of Mulayam Singh Yadav, the Samajwadi party chief, and his Man Friday, Amar Singh, aside for the present. For that, like the Left Front’s loss of its huge and unprecedented clout at the centre is a different story. What has attracted limelight is the resurrection of the India-United States civilian nuclear cooperation deal that most people here as well as in the US had believed to be "virtually dead". However, as American spokespersons never failed to point out, the cause of the controversial deal’s impending demise was the "political discord" within India’s ruling United Progressive Alliance, not any reluctance on America’s part.
Now that the Congress-led coalition is certain that it would not fall even after the Left Front withdraws its support to the government, and the spectre of "early elections" has been exorcised, there is a distinct possibility that deal may go through even during the remaining five months of George W. Bush’s thoroughly discredited presidency. The reasons why I say "may", not "will" -- as are asserting the deal’s ardent devotees -- ought to be obvious.
While there is little doubt that Bush and his cohorts would do all they can to push the deal hard and clinch it before his exit from the White House, there are limits beyond which the available time cannot be stretched. Just consider this: The earliest the Prime Minister can send the Indian negotiators to Vienna to sign the India-specific safeguards agreement with the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), would be some days after his return from the G-8 Summit at Hokkaido in Japan. That would take us to mid-July. Since the agreement is already initialed by the IAEA Secretariat and the Indian delegation - which, not "confidentiality" is perhaps the reason for the government’s reluctance to share the agreement’s text with its Leftist supporters - to sign the document would be a simple affair. The problem would be with the next step - to secure the endorsement of the IAEA Board of Governors.
Even this will not be difficult because all the IAEA governors reside in Vienna and the 35-member board functions by majority. The problem is that the governors’ endorsement might take longer than the Indian government believes. Why? Because August is a month of holidays in Europe during which the continent is practically shut. Moreover, Pakistan is a member of the board, as is China. While Beijing would not say or do anything itself, its Pakistani friends are bound to put as many spokes in the wheel as possible. Furthermore, there are reports that Canada wants time to "study" the agreement negotiated by India and the IAEA secretariat.
Only after the IAEA board of governors has ratified the text drawn up by the agency’s secretariat with India’s concurrence can the critically important next step of taking the 123 Indo-US agreement, together with the India-specific safeguards agreement, be taken to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The NSG is to make the necessary changes in its guidelines to enable the US and its 44 other members to extend to India the exceptions visualized in the 123 Agreement. Once the NSG guidelines are duly changed the whole package has to be submitted to the US Congress for its approval in a "yes or no" vote.
In objecting to the "compromise" formula that the Indian delegation be allowed to go to Vienna on condition that any further step would be taken only in agreement with the Left, the CPI (M) general secretary, Prakash Karat and his comrades had a point. Once the IAEA agreement is endorsed the deal goes on "auto-pilot". India is not a member of the NSG. The Americans alone would take the issue there. More important, as the veteran Russian ambassador to India, Vyacheslav Trubnikov, has said publicly, America alone has the clout to "persuade" the NSG to give the necessary "waiver" to India. But that cannot be an easy and smooth process. Some countries, such as Ireland, Austria and, to an extent, Australia are opposed to any concessions to India. At the least they could insist on such conditions as New Delhi signing the CTBT, which would be unacceptable to this country.
Under the circumstances, it is rather unrealistic to expect that the entire process - including the elaborate procedure of the US Congress, even if Bush tries to get it telescoped - can be completed by January 19. Especially, after the statement in Delhi by Congressman Ackerman, who is a staunch supporter of the deal, that after the election of the new House and Senate, the lame-duck Congress cannot hold a session. Some say this is only a "pressure tactic". But let’s wait and watch,
Meanwhile, two fundamental points need to be made. First, that even though there is substance in some of the points raised by the deal’s inveterate opponents, overall the deal serves Indian interests. As Russia and France acknowledge, it is the only way Indian can get out of the "technology denial trap" since the 1974 underground nuclear detonation. Also, there is acute shortage of uranium in this country and it would take a long time to develop a fuel cycle based on India’s inexhaustible reserves of thorium.
Secondly some Indians - including, astonishingly several former foreign secretaries - seem to believe that once the NSG makes the necessary changes in its guidelines, this country need not bother about the deal with the US, and start importing nuclear fuel, material and technology from Russia and France.
As Jawaharlal Nehru said in a very different context, these gentlemen are living in a "make-believe world" of their own creation. To imagine that America would invest so heavily in the nuclear deal with India and then be content to be left in the lurch, while Paris and Moscow have a bonanza, is the height of naivety