June 23, 2008 6:00 pm

India races to save US nuclear deal

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India’s government is scrambling to shore up political support in a last-ditch effort to save its landmark nuclear energy agreement with the US, even though the deal is already written off as dead by many in Washington.

US officials say it is probably impossible for the deal to receive approval in the US Senate before President George W. Bush leaves office in January. They say not enough legislative time is left following the Indian government’s failure so far to reach agreement on the deal with its parliamentary allies.

However, political analysts in New Delhi say Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, who struck the deal at a White House meeting with Mr Bush in 2005, is determined to force it through, possibly at a meeting on Wednesday between his United Progressive Alliance coalition and its leftwing allies.

“The end game is very close,” said Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst and professor of history at Delhi University.

The UPA, led by Mr Singh’s Congress party, received a boost at the weekend from the Samajwadi party, based in the populous Uttar Pradesh state, which signalled that it would support the deal. “Improving the nation’s energy security with a quantum rise in the share of civilian nuclear energy is the need of the day,” the party said.

Mr Singh has invested much political capital in the deal, which gives India access to civil nuclear technology and material without requiring it to renounce its nuclear weapons or join the non-proliferation treaty.

Under the terms of the agreement with the US, New Delhi has to secure approval for the deal from the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Only after that can the deal be sent to the US Congress for final approval. But the political paralysis in New Delhi has led the government to sit on the deal for 10 months without inviting IAEA inspectors to begin safeguards inspections.

India’s foreign ministry refused to explain how the government could hope to set a timetable for the approval process that would allow enough time for it be approved by the IAEA, the NSG and the US Congress before Mr Bush leaves office.

US officials say the controversial nature of the deal means it could take at least two months to win approval at the NSG, only after which it could be submitted to the US Senate.

The Senate’s calendar is also complicated by the US election year. Between the summer recess and election day in November, the Senate has only an attenuated session in September and October, when little legislation is expected to be approved.

”It certainly gets harder every day that this is delayed,” Tom Casey, a US state department spokesman, said yesterday.

”We’d like to believe that this deal can and should be supported by whoever comes into office in January of 2009. But, obviously, the next US government will have to look at this and make their own decisions on it.”

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