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Canada gets set to bury nuclear ghost

Ottawa, Sept. 11: After the US and the UK, Canada is well on the way to being reconciled with a nuclear India.

A visit by external affairs minister K. Natwar Singh to Ottawa next fortnight will give India and Canada an opportunity to revisit the issue during closed-door discussions.

Unlike during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent meetings with US President George W. Bush or British Prime Minister Tony Blair, no dramatic announcements are expected to be made on nuclear matters after the external affairs minister’s talks with his Canadian counterpart, Pierre Stewart Pettigrew.

That will have to wait, probably until the Prime Minister visits Ottawa next year: both sides are looking at a visit here by Manmohan Singh in May or June 2006, if all goes well.

But there are straws in the wind here to suggest that the nuclear issue, which has bedevilled bilateral ties for 31 years since India’s first nuclear test, is already on the backburner.

In May, R. Chidambaram, the principal scientific adviser to the Prime Minister and the architect of the Pokhran-II nuclear tests in 1998, visited Ottawa at the invitation of the Canadian government.

There was a time after Pokhran-II when Chidambaram was persona non grata for the Canadians to such an extent that they would have prevented him ' if it was possible ' from driving along Shanti Path, the seat of the Canadian High Commission in Delhi.

Canada has proposed nuclear safety co-operation with India. For appearances of balance in South Asia, Ottawa also proposed such co-operation with Islamabad.

The Pakistanis accepted the proposals, but India is yet to respond and will only do so after the nuclear imbroglio with Canada is wiped off the diplomatic slate once and for all.

Another signal that Canada is finally willing to move beyond its nuclear stalemate with India is that it considers the nuclear deal between Manmohan Singh and Bush in July as a positive development.

Non-proliferation, which is in tatters globally, is still an issue of political correctness in Canada and officials here are, therefore, unwilling to speak on record, but they said Canada’s response would be “pragmatic” and “creative” if New Delhi were to seek Ottawa’s support for India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

That is expected to happen during Natwar Singh’s visit here next fortnight.

Canada is a leading and active member of the NSG and India’s application for entry into the group, which has a whip-hand on the sale of nuclear equipment and transfer of nuclear technology, has been pending since the beginning of last year.

China applied for NSG membership along with India and has already entered the club, whose membership is a must for eventual global recognition of New Delhi as a nuclear weapons state.

Canadian officials said the modus vivendi with India on the bilateral nuclear stalemate will be that Ottawa will no longer lecture India on non-proliferation or speak about India’s non-compliance with an “unfair” global nuclear regime at every global forum.

In fact, the Canadians, by and large, have already stopped doing so. But they will continue to state their declared positions at relevant fora, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency or a conference on non-proliferation. India, for its part, will continue to ignore such statements.

As the last hold-out against the 1998 nuclear tests by India, Canada has realised that any continued attempt to pressure India on Pokhran-II is counter-productive and nothing will move India away from the path of weaponisation.

When they talk here next fortnight, Natwar Singh and Pettigrew will acknowledge behind closed doors the pragmatism of such an understanding and free Indo-Canadian relations after three decades of being hostage to the single issue of India’s nuclear programme.

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