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Congress buys more time on nuclear deal

Congress buys more time on nuclear deal
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First Published: Thu, Jun 19 2008. 01 21 AM IST

Updated: Thu, Jun 19 2008. 01 21 AM IST
New Delhi: The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government postponed yet another confrontation with the Left parties over the fate of the India-US nuclear deal, even though it had already quietly sounded out the US about taking the text, already informally agreed to with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).
As political speculation swirled over the ill-fated deal, people close to external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee said he had told Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM general secretary Prakash Karat, over their two meetings in the last two days, that India intends to now take the nuclear deal to the next stage, that is for a formal clearance to the IAEA board of governors.
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In return, these people said, Karat had asked the government to give the Left a written guarantee that it would not “operationalize” the 123 Agreement with the US, thereby paving the way for a strategic partnership with it.
But the Congress party seems averse to doing so, keeping alive the tension over what it might mean to the longevity of the current Indian government.
Meanwhile, India’s own unusual request to the US, to take the deal to NSG, was made about a couple of months ago, people close to the negotiations said. It came after India and IAEA had frozen the text and even initialled it between themselves. Although that move has been always touted as a mere “technicality”, the request shows that the government is keen to keep the deal alive despite the Left parties warning that any forward movement in IAEA would force them to withdraw support to the government.
The US, in turn, is said to have told the Indian government that while their request was, in theory, a possibility, the other members of the NSG wanted to see a document showing the IAEA board of governors had cleared the deal, the people said.
But since getting a formal clearance of the frozen text from the IAEA board of governors would in all likelihood precipitate a political crisis at home, the idea was then abandoned, they added.
Reflecting the continued difficulties the Congress party is having over the nuclear issue, both internally and externally, the government asked the Left parties on Wednesday to postpone, until 25 June, a scheduled meeting citing the previously scheduled visit of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Some people see the postponement of Wednesday’s meeting as a sign that the Congress was also having trouble arriving at an internal consensus with speculation that a division within the party had accentuated this week, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh remaining in favour of going ahead with the next step.
Meanwhile, political tea leaves are being studied closely following Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s speech in Guwahati over the weekend that talked of India’s need for nuclear energy.
Gandhi’s speech is being explained, in some Congress quarters, as the reason that will be used to go ahead with the deal. Late on Wednesday evening, Gandhi was in a meeting with her close advisers A.K. Antony, Ahmed Patel and Mukherjee on this issue. Matters could come to a head at a core group meeting between Gandhi and Singh on Friday.
The government’s request to postpone today’s UPA-Left meeting came after Mukherjee meet CPM’s Karat twice, and CPM leader Sitaram Yechury met Gandhi on Tuesday night.
People familiar with the matter claim Mukherjee requested Karat to let the government take the deal to the IAEA board of governors, arguing that clearance would allow India to deal with the rest of the world, and not only the US.
Mukherjee is also said to have told Karat that if the IAEA board did not clear the deal, then India would not be able to conduct any nuclear negotiations with other countries, such as Russia and France.
With India and IAEA having “initialled” their frozen text, at India’s request, an extraordinary meeting of the IAEA board of governors could be convened and potentially clear the deal in about three days, allowing for it to proceed to the NSG, without any need for a formal India-IAEA sign-off.
Meanwhile, in Washington, US state department spokesman Tom Casey said the US would “continue to encourage the Indian government to approve (the deal),” even up to 20 January 2009, when the current US administration formally hands over to a new government. “And, if in such time it is approved, we will make every effort to move it through Congress,” Casey said.
Press Trust of India contributed to this story.
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First Published: Thu, Jun 19 2008. 01 21 AM IST