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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 November 2006, 16:59 GMT
Mid-terms fallout on nuclear deal
Seema Sirohi
By Seema Sirohi

Prospects for the Indo-US nuclear deal hang in the balance after the Democrats' success in the US mid-terms.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (left) and President Bush
George Bush has said the deal is a personal priority

Despite the US president's assurances that the historic agreement is his top priority, officials in both Washington and Delhi are now worried.

George W Bush referred to "trying to get the India deal done" in his speech reacting to the Republican loss.

But the Indo-US nuclear deal, which aims to feed India's soaring energy needs, awaits a Senate vote.

It has already cleared by the House of Representatives by a big margin (369 to 68).

Bipartisan support

Both the Bush administration and Indian government officials are hoping that a short, lame duck session of the outgoing Congress will take it up later this month.

Many rank and file democrats do not feel like handing Mr Bush a foreign policy victory, especially because they feel they were not consulted while the deal was cooking

Time is of the essence. The week-long session begins on the 13 November with a crowded agenda and competing priorities.

US Ambassador to India, David Mulford, told reporters that the chances were "quite favourable" and emphasised the bipartisan nature of the support in Washington.

It is true that senior Democratic senators such as Joseph Biden and Harry Reid have recently reiterated their support for the Indo-US agreement, and told their Indian-American supporters they will do their best to push it.

Ramesh Kapur, an Indian-American close to the Democratic leadership, has said he was "very confident it will get done."

But according to one Washington insider, the rank and file Democrats are equally important.

Many of them do not feel like handing Mr Bush a foreign policy victory, especially because they feel they were not consulted while the deal was cooking.

If the Senate fails to pass the bill in the short session, the agreement will go back to the drawing board when the new Congress reconvenes, opening the deal to new questions and further delays.

"I am not sure there is enough time in the lame duck session to finish the complicated process of getting it through the Senate, reconciling the House and Senate versions and then back to both houses for a vote," said Walter Andersen, associate director of the South Asia programme at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.

Diaspora push

But he noted Mr Bush's comments, saying it was a signal from the Republican president that if the deal does not get through the Senate, the blame will lie at the feet of the Democrats.

US President George W Bush and India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
Mr Bush has said the nuclear deal with India is a personal priority

"One must not forget that the 2008 presidential election started today and both parties want Indian-American money and votes," Mr Andersen elaborated.

Indeed, the role of the influential Indian-American community in pushing the nuclear deal has been crucial.

Swadesh Chatterjee, an Indian-American from North Carolina who heads a coalition of prominent community members, said he was "hopeful that the bill would be taken up before the year is over".

Friendship with India is a priority for both Democrats and Republicans as they face the challenge of a rising Asia.

Both parties recognize the importance the Indian government attaches to the nuclear agreement and failure to approve it would adversely affect Indo-US relations.

Michael Krepon, president emeritus of the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think-tank, agreed that "opposing the deal is politically unpopular in Congress."

But he adds that the new reality in the Congress however makes the process "more complex."

Path-breaking

Democrats take a more stringent approach to non-proliferation and some of them have criticized the deal for rewarding India with nuclear technology while not extracting tangible gains in return for the US.

The path-breaking agreement will allow India access to nuclear technology it has been denied for three decades because it refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, calling it discriminatory.

India has also conducted nuclear tests, and has a well-developed nuclear weapons programme.

Krepon and several other non-proliferation experts have criticized the agreement for undermining the international non-proliferation regime, saying Washington cannot tell Iran and North Korea not to pursue weapons programmes while awarding India for the same.

But Indian and Bush administration officials argue that India is different because it has a clean record and has never proliferated nuclear technology, despite its proven expertise.

Some Democratic non-proliferation hardliners may try to attach new conditions to the agreement, such as stricter monitoring of nuclear technology the US sells to India.

The question of who gains commercially once the deal is approved is also crucial, analysts point out.

The Democrats may ask for assurances that US companies will get a big share of the Indian business as Delhi moves to construct new nuclear reactors.

Critics of the deal have been telling Congressmen and Senators that France and Russia are likely to get more contracts after the Americans have done the hard work of making it legally possible to sell nuclear technology to India.






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