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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Fusion Music

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had a smile of satisfaction as M.K. Narayanan, the leader of his crack team, reported from Washington: "Mission accomplished." In his quiet manner, the PM adjusted his blue turban with the most coveted feather—a hard-won nuclear deal with the US that's not just forward-looking, but mind-altering and potentially world-defining. It's a deal that would open important doors shut in India's face for three decades and create a sui generis category for it in the nuclear order. The agreement was proof and price of America's desire to be India's strategic partner as the two democracies navigate the shifting sands of an uncertain world.

The PM's "first concern was that all parties in India be told the facts so there is no disinformation campaign by vested interests," said an official.

There was no beating of drums, no champagne or laddus as history was made by Manmohan and his partner in Washington, President George Bush. But now the US has to convince the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a cartel of 45 countries, to change its rules and allow sale of nuclear technology

to India or this deal means little. Nick Burns, the lead US negotiator, is on the task this week as his boss, secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, plans a visit to New Delhi around October and "move forward" in her engagement of India. She too will have reason to smile—it was Rice who first presented the vastly improved vision of bilateral relations to Manmohan in March 2005.

Most of India's major demands have been met—the right to reprocess fuel, to stockpile it and to get uninterrupted supplies whether from the US or other countries. The text also contains a specific reference that the agreement will not adversely impact India's strategic nuclear programme, a clause insisted upon by the Indian team to ensure no curbs are imposed on the military side. Yes, if India conducts a nuclear test, the cooperation ends but there was no way to circumambulate the US Atomic Energy Act and nor was it a realistic aim, say Indian negotiators. Given Bush's low approval ratings, he can't "amend toilet paper" leave alone a long-standing pillar of a law, a diplomat commented.

The last make-or-break round was clinched after India's offer at Heilingendamm during the June G-8 summit to build a separate safeguarded facility for reprocessing spent fuel from reactors India would import, ensuring no US fuel leaked into the military programme—a fear underlying the negotiating stance of the US. When Narayanan landed in Washington along with foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon and the Indian team, the air was thick with anticipation. Time was short given the US legislative calendar, the need for congressional approval and the pile of thorny issues yet to be resolved. But Burns and Narayanan knew they had to deliver.

"We knew we couldn't afford to fail, no matter what the disagreements. Both of us recognised that if you don't do it now, it will never be done. No one would touch this for decades, saying it is too difficult to deal with the Indians," a lead US negotiator explains. If there were dissenting, stern voices in Delhi, there were troublemakers in the US bureaucracy who interpreted the July 18, 2005, Indo-US joint statement from which this deal flowed in the narrowest manner possible. The state department's own non-proliferation bureau was opposed to the deal. Burns was regularly supplied papers, muddling mind and matters. These had to be countered, making the "paper war" intense and time-consuming. Then the US Congress went two steps further with the Hyde Act, making the horribly difficult negotiations hellish.

From Tuesday until Friday last week, the two sides systematically resolved all issues, either with a way out or by finessing or by postponing.

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