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As India’s Congress party was scrambling last week to muster support for its fragile coalition ahead of a crucial trust vote, top Indian bureaucrats have been in Vienna pushing forward the controversial nuclear deal that triggered the domestic political crisis.
On Friday, Shiv Shankar Mennon, India’s foreign secretary, met the governing board of the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and members of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group to brief them on New Delhi’s plan for inspections of its declared civilian nuclear energy reactors.
The inspection plan is aimed at ensuring that any nuclear fuel and technology potentially supplied by foreign partners for India’s civilian power programme would not be diverted to weapons research and military uses.
These safeguards – and their approval by the IAEA and NSG – are a crucial part of an Indo-US nuclear energy co-operation programme that would end a 10-year-old embargo on nuclear fuel, reactors and technology imposed after New Delhi tested a nuclear device for weapons purposes.
The 35-nation IAEA Board of Governors is scheduled to vote on India’s proposed safeguard plan on August 1, after which Washington is expected to call for the NSG members to meet for their own discussion on the issue, before taking the deal to the US Congress.
But if India’s Congress-led coalition government – which has described the deal as essential for India to meet its growing energy needs – fails to secure a majority in the confidence vote, the whole process, and the deal, would be jeopardised.
“If this government falls on this deal, the prospects of it closing in this calendar year is going to be almost zero,” said C. Uday Bhaskar, an independent defence and security policy analyst.
The collapse of the government could see opposition parties – which have criticised the deal – offered a chance to form their own administration, but would more likely see the Congress continue to lead a caretaker government before early elections in the coming months.
However, as a caretaker, Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, would come under intense pressure to withdraw the proposed safeguards agreement from IAEA consideration, and have the scheduled vote called off.
Some deal advocates argue Mr Singh should resist such pressure to allow the process of getting IAEA approval to move forward, especially since the agreement has already been signed by the government and does not require Indian Parliamentary ratification anyway.
“The government is under no moral obligation to withdraw the deal,” said Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, former editor of The Statesman newspaper. “If the government falls under the trust vote ... it’s unfinished business continues; its constitutionality and legality can’t be challenged.”
Mr Datta-Ray predicted Mr Singh would try to shepherd the deal through the process even as a caretaker. “Manmohan has staked everything on this ... if there is a possible loophole he can squeeze through, he will.”
Sonia Gandhi, the Congress party leader, and her son Rahul, an MP, both vigorously defended the deal in public last week, calling it crucial for India’s national interest.
But K. Subrahmanyam, a New Delhi-based defence analyst, expressed scepticism that a Congress-led caretaker government would push ahead. “In legal terms they can go ahead and do it,” he said. “But whether they would do it in terms of propriety, that is the question.”
Even if they tried, analysts say the 35 countries on the IAEA board, and NSG members, may be reluctant to take a vote without a “credible” government in New Delhi and would probably put it on hold until a new government takes power.
If the government falls, the nuclear deal “goes into a kind of freeze until a new government comes up”, said Mr Subramanyam. “Then it is up to that government to follow it up or not.”
The opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party favours closer ties with the US and nuclear co-operation but says that it would like to renegotiate the deal, as it feels the current draft excessively subordinates India to Washington.
The Bush administration has warned that the nuclear deal needs to be ratified by the US Congress before US elections in November, as a new US Congress may not be willing to support it.
Additional reporting by Amy Yee in New Delhi