Final Warning on India Nukes Deal

( Time )- Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher last week visited New Delhi with a sharp reminder: it's now or never for the Indo-U.S. Civilian Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, which has been stalled since India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh failed to garner the votes from within his own coalition to pass the deal.

Washington is warning that given the U.S. presidential campaign season, India has until June to complete all the steps required to get the agreement - which provides for civilian nuclear cooperation between the two countries without India having to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty - before Congress for a yes or no vote. Having invested immense political capital in the deal, the Bush administration is keen to see it completed, and has been quietly pressuring New Delhi to expedite matters. Last week, former Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns publicly asked India to take a "courageous decision" in view of the "short timelines". Before that, on February 20, U.S. Senators Chuck Hagel , John Kerry and Joe Biden has visited New Delhi with the same message.

Making haste, however, is proving difficult for India's government, because of the resistance to the deal by opposition parties as well as the leftist parties in the ruling coalition who have delayed the deal at every step since it was first proposed in July 2005. The government has sidestepped this resistance by agreeing to hold talks with leftist allies, buying itself time to complete the requirements to get the deal before the U.S. Congress. But now, time is running out. Experts agree that the current deal is the best one India can get: it allows India to trade internationally in nuclear materials and technology, without signing the CTBT and despite carrying on with its nuclear weapons program. And it has the backing of a congressional consensus in the U.S. sufficient to win endorsement on Capitol Hill. If the deal is not passed during the tenure of the current administration, however, its successor might seek to renegotiate on terms less favorable to India.

The realization that Washington's position may harden has prompted India's power brokers to burn the midnight oil in order to meet the deadlines. This requires concluding, by the end of this month, an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency to regulate India's civilian nuclear energy program and to ensure that it remains separate from its nuclear weapons program. By May, they must secure an exemption from the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which controls international trade in nuclear materials, to rules that preclude supplying states that are not signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and India's failure to sign the Test Ban Treaty will not go down easily with some of its members. India reiterated its support for universal nuclear disarmament at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva last month, and proposed a seven-point agenda. Getting an NSG waiver will be tricky, but the U.S. has assured India of its support in convincing skeptics.

With opponents of the deal - mainly the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party - digging their heels in, the June deadline may prompt the government to tell its leftist allies to take a hike. Riding high on a popular budget announced last week - which substantially reduced income tax and waived $150 billion worth of loans owed by small and marginal farmers - the government is in a good position to face elections. Politicians know that the average citizen cares little about the nuclear deal, as the CPI (M) learned last September: While the CPI (M) was focusing its attention on holding up the nuclear deal in New Delhi, in Bengal, the state it governs, villagers angry at food shortages and corruption broke into a riot. Many CPI (M) cadres were assaulted in riots over the following weeks. Most Indians may, in fact, be glad to get the nuclear deal out of the way, so that politicians can get on with working on issues more important in the minds of the citizenry.

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