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Go slow, and save nuclear deal

New Delhi, Oct. 13: Apart from averting the threat of early elections, the decision to “go slow” on operationalising the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement actually enhances the chances of the deal’s survival rather than bringing about its premature death.

It was this realisation that played a key role in persuading the Manmohan Singh administration to heed the voice of allies as well as Congress leaders and step back from the brink, government sources revealed today.

“If we went ahead with negotiations with the IAEA leading to the withdrawal of support from the Left, the deal itself would be in jeopardy. But by de-linking the deal from the Bush administration’s timetable, the next two steps (the India-specific safeguards agreement with the IAEA and the nuclear suppliers group waiver) can be taken at a later stage before the term of the UPA government expires,” a senior official said.

After the Left’s intransigent stand at the October 5 nuclear panel meeting with the UPA, top Congress ministers weighed the pros and cons of going ahead with talks with the IAEA and concluded that the risk was not worth taking.

For one thing, once the government was reduced to a minority, it would be difficult to undertake any credible negotiations with an international body and would effectively kill the deal before it was born.

More important, the general feeling was that though the agreement would open up civil nuclear commerce not just with the US but the rest of the world, too, the impression had gained ground that it was inextricably tied up with the presidency of George W. Bush.

Given the US President’s unpopularity, it would be politically difficult for the Congress to weather the charge that it had risked survival to suit Bush’s timetable. The nuclear deal, many felt, should not “get boxed in by Bush” and it was better to lose the short-term battle to win the long-term war.

In other words, if the government desisted from taking the “next steps” in a hurry, talks could continue with the Left over the next several months to take them on board and then go to the IAEA.

The IAEA safeguards agreement could even be done in November 2008 and the NSG waiver would follow — well within the term of the current UPA regime.

The last two months of negotiations with the Left helped many Congress leaders and ministers, too, to understand the nitty-gritty of the deal which had so far been the preserve of a small group of negotiators.

Their reading of many Congress leaders and ministers was that even if the Bush administration cannot see through the deal, it has enough bipartisan support in the US Congress for it to get a green signal at a later stage.

Getting the deal through at a later stage might prove “difficult” but it was not impossible. The IAEA chief ElBaradei’s repeated assertion that there was “no deadline” to start talks on the safeguards agreement and his unabashed support for ending the nuclear apartheid against India only strengthened the view that the deal could be saved for another day.

The government, sources said, is aware that the Left will continue to oppose the 123 Agreement — from which the next steps flow — in its present form. But senior ministers are hopeful that once the current crisis is defused and the “Bush factor” is out of the way, the Left, too, will be much more “reasonable” and “accommodative” on the issue.

The Prime Minister’s remark yesterday that “I have not given up hope that reason and common sense will ultimately win the day” must be seen in this light, sources said.

As for the blow to Manmohan Singh’s personal stature because of his perceived “climbdown”, a Congress leader said: “Frankly, his power and stature flow directly from the backing he gets from Sonia Gandhi. And she has made it amply clear that he has her full support.”

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