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Uneasy tidings before N-marathon
Narayanan, Hadley

Washington, July 17: Even as India and the US today began “technical” discussions on an agreed text of their “123 Agreement” to be put up before national security advisers M.K. Narayanan and Stephen Hadley tomorrow, there were clear indications here that the larger political environment in the US does not favour accommodating India’s concerns on the nuclear deal.

US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice made further changes to her travel plans yesterday, dropping a trip to Africa altogether from her itinerary this week. She had earlier postponed visits to Israel, Palestine and the Democratic Republic of Congo to be available in Washington to take any impasse in the nuclear negotiations with India to President George W. Bush, if necessary.

Rice faced withering criticism yesterday for her decision not to go to Africa: nearly half of US state department spokesperson Sean McCormack’s daily briefing was taken up by critical remarks about Rice for allegedly snubbing Africa.

As Indian and American officials laid out the format for marathon talks on the nuclear deal in the next two — possibly three — days, the Americans are somewhat bewildered that Anil Kakodkar, Atomic Energy Commission chairman, is here but will not take part in any meeting with US officials.

The Indian embassy here explained this away to curious Americans by recalling that at the Indo-US summits both on July 18, 2005, and on March 2, 2006, Kakodkar was not present anywhere during the actual negotiations on the nuclear deal.

But the US under secretary of state for political affairs, Nicholas Burns, keenly aware that Kakodkar’s unseen presence could be the most decisive influence on the Indian delegation, insisted that Trombay’s nuclear czar should attend his dinner for the delegation tonight.

Another curiosity in the Washington round of nuclear talks is that tomorrow morning, Narayanan and Hadley will meet in the West Wing of the White House for an hour without any aides.

While they are meeting one-on-one, Burns and foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon — the latter supported, among others on the Indian side, by Kakodkar’s trusted aide Ravi Grover — will hold parallel negotiations at the state department.

The two men will then join Narayanan and Hadley for lunch at the White House and a post-luncheon meeting.

A sample of the criticism of Rice yesterday for staying back in Washington during the nuclear talks was in the question to McCormack: “It might be comforting to some of those in Africa who will see this as a snub if you could tell us exactly what it is that the secretary plans to do here on Wednesday instead of going to Ghana'”

The spokesperson would not give a clear answer. The state department is not admitting that Rice is staying back because of the dialogue with India.

McCormack replied: “Well, certainly we will — as to her public events — we will publish what her public events will be on Wednesday as we do every day. But in terms of other meetings, conversations, work that she is going to be doing, I will keep you up-to-date when the day arrives.”

Meanwhile, in the run up to today’s talks, The Hill, a publication which accurately reflects views on Capitol Hill, wrote that India’s energy negotiations with Iran could yet derail the nuclear deal.

It said Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff and Republican Congressman Ed Royce told leaders and officials during their recent visit to India that the “prospects of passage (of the 123 Agreement) have decreased from where they were last year” because New Delhi has “renegotiated the terms”.

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