123 countdown to India-US nuclear deal

By Arun Kumar, IANS

Washington : With the 123 agreement for civil nuclear cooperation between India and the United States finalised, Indian diplomats here are preparing for the next battle to make it a done deal.

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Details of the accord forged amid high drama after four days of tough negotiations would be there for all to see when the document is made public in the next week or 10 days after India's Cabinet Committee on Security puts its seal of approval on it.

But of all the president's men, the one critical player on the US side who helped bridge the once seemingly unbridgeable differences was National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley who as George Bush's eyes and ears at the White House knows the boss's mind.

Aware of how keen Bush is to seal the "historic initiative" he took with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh two years ago, Hadley was always at hand to settle knotty issues raised by the bureaucrats along with India's National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan, according to one privy to the talks.

While high profile meetings with US Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defence Secretary Robert Gates gave the talks political impetus, it was the man who coordinates Bush's foreign and defence policies that came up with all the answers.

Not only did he hold a three-hour long session with Narayanan and host a working lunch for the full Indian delegation led at the formal talks by the Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon, he was always standing by to keep things going. He even asked to see the two just before the meeting with Cheney to demonstrate the president's commitment.

At the formal rounds, Menon and Washington's chief interlocutor Nicholas Burns, US under secretary of state for political affairs, enunciated broad principles leaving it to technical experts, India's S. Jaishankar and US' Richard Stratford, to translate them into the language of the 123 agreement.

R.B. Grover, director of strategic planning group in the Department of Atomic Energy too joined the technical talks and ran the emerging drafts by Anil Kakodkar, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission to ensure that India's scientific establishment was on board.

If Jaishankar, India's envoy to Singapore, and Stratford, director of the State Department's Office of Nuclear Security and Cooperation, who have met in New Delhi, Washington, Pretoria, London and sundry other places over the last two years to shape the complex document running into some 30 odd pages, could not agree on a word or phrase, it was back to Narayanan and Hadley.

And it was the Narayanan and Hadley duo that came up with the right formulation acceptable to all stakeholders inclusive of Kakodkar. And so it went on back and forth as the play inched twice into "extra innings", as Burns put it using a baseball term, and everyone missed a flight to stay back and cross all the t's and dot all the i's.

In the end, all the sticky points ranging from India's insistence on the right to reprocess US provided nuclear fuel and conduct a test to guarantees for uninterrupted fuel supplies to avoid another Tarapur when US invoked sanctions, were thus apparently taken care of.

How they did it without seeking another change in the Henry Hyde Act – that all agreed may prove an uphill task in a Congress now controlled by the opposition Democrats despite broad bipartisan support for the India deal – should be there for all to see soon.

Then begins the battle royale at the Capitol Hill with the Bush administration trying to sell it to the US Congress that must approve it again in a up or down, yes or no vote before the deal, which may go down as a major foreign policy success for Bush on par with Nixon's opening up to China in 1972, becomes a reality.

Indian diplomats as also the powerful Indian American lobby is expected to pitch in to convince the Congress that the 123 agreement, so named after the relevant section of the United States Atomic Energy Act of 1954, is indeed in conformity with the law passed by it last December to approve the deal in principle.

Meanwhile, Indian diplomats hope to work out an India-specific additional protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in August itself and seek the approval of the Nuclear Suppliers Group at a special session of the 45-nation group in September.

With these two conditions met and all other pieces falling into place as planned, the 123 agreement could be sent up for legislative approval as October. The Congress can mull over it for no more than 90 working days before either approving it or rejecting it without any changes.

It would only be when the US Congress gives a thumbs-up – hopefully by March next or latest by the middle of next year – that the deal on which rides a 100 billion dollar of business for American companies would be finally done!