The Indo-US nuclear agreement is firmly back on the agenda after hopes had all but vanished in March this year when the ruling Congress Party in New Delhi decided that it was not prepared to risk the fall of the coalition government for the sake of the deal. However, prime minister Manmohan Singh was working at the time on an alternative strategy, soliciting support from a smaller socialist party to counter the withdrawal of the crucial backing from his anti-American communist allies in the parliament. By the end of June, that support was secured, and Singh immediately approached the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for the India specific safeguards agreement, the step that had been on hold since December last year.
Given that opposition to the deal remained very strong in parliament, Singh chose to seek a vote of trust. In late July, against a background of serious allegations of bribery, his government persuaded a sizeable number opposition MPs to defy their party orders and give him a clear majority. (The vote was not for the actual ratification of the deal, however; this is not necessary under the Indian constitution.)
Even though all the reported deadlines for securing the deal before US president Bush leaves office have long passed, theoretically there is still time for diplomats to speed up the remaining processes and try to achieve the goal.
The first hurdle was cleared quickly on 1 August when the 35-member IAEA board of governors unanimously approved the safeguards agreement that will put 14 of the country’s 22 nuclear facilities under the agency’s safeguards by 2014.
New Delhi has now approached the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), with the necessary support of the USA, for the removal of restrictions imposed upon the country since 1974. At the NSG meeting expected to take place on 21 August in Germany, India hopes to get a “clean and unconditional waiver” to trade in nuclear material and technology, despite its refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Finally, if all goes well, on 8 September the Indo-US ‘123 agreement’ (so named after Section 123 of the 1954 Atomic Energy Act) would be put to vote in the US Congress for ratification.
If for any reason the Bush administration does not succeed in holding to the timeline, the odds are still in favour the deal. Democrat presidential nominee Barack Obama told Outlook magazine: “The existing agreement effectively balanced a range of important issues, from our strategic relationship with India, to our non-proliferation concerns, to India’s energy needs. I am therefore reluctant to seek changes.”
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