New Delhi: India is expected to show little flexibility at negotiations with the US this week over a controversial nuclear energy deal, said officials, amid fears the landmark pact could be running out of time.
The 17-18 July meeting in Washington between a high-profile team of Indian officials, led by National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan, and their US counterparts is being seen as a decisive round in what have been tortured negotiations.
The latest round is due to conclude two years to the day after the deal was first agreed in principle and was hailed as a cornerstone of a new strategic partnership between the once-estranged democracies.
It was approved by the US Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush last December.
But the two sides have since struggled to sew up a bilateral agreement that is required to govern nuclear trade, with New Delhi rejecting what it says are new conditions, some of which were included when congressmen approved the deal.
Indian officials said the onus was on the US administration to address New Delhi’s concerns on the changes despite fears that time was running out for both governments to clinch the deal before their terms in power end.
“The bottom line is that in the last round we made it very clear where we stand,” said an Indian official close to the negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“This round is for them to come up with solutions to the problems which were laid out in the last round.”
The civilian nuclear cooperation deal will allow India to buy nuclear fuel and equipment from American firms, overturning a three-decade ban imposed after India, which has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, conducted nuclear tests.
It aims to help India, Asia’s third largest economy, meet its soaring energy needs.
But critics in both countries have accused their governments of giving away too much, with US supporters of non-proliferation saying they feared it would lead to a nuclear arms race between India, Pakistan and China.
Indian officials complain of Washington’s refusal to allow reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel and a clause to penalise India if it conducts another nuclear test by ending nuclear cooperation and requiring the return of nuclear equipment.
While US officials have said that they are bound by laws on some of those conditions, India says it will not accept any deviation from Washington’s original commitments and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has promised Parliament as much.
“Our positions on all the key issues are clearly laid out,” said the Indian official. “They have to come up with answers to our problems. Whether they do it with, over, under, beside amending their law is not our problem.”
Some Indian analysts and lobby groups said New Delhi may have painted itself into a corner through Singh’s commitment in Parliament, as opposition groups and communists who shore up his coalition were adamant that he stick by them.
But with time running out for the governments, it was essential for bureaucrats to “recognise that they do not have the luxury of an unending negotiation”, said C. Raja Mohan, a professor at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
“It would be a pity if the two bureaucracies let down their political masters,” he wrote in the Indian Express newspaper.
“Failure to bring the ... talks to a closure because of an obsession with technical and textual trivia would let the political clock kill the Indo-US nuclear deal.”