| Manmohan Singh greets George W. Bush at Delhi airport on Wednesday. (Reuters)
New Delhi, March 1: President George W. Bush landed here just before 8 pm and launched into some vigorous pumping of hands with Manmohan Singh who was also subjected to rounds of back-thumping.
From the evidence of bonhomie, at least on the American leader’s part ' the Prime Minister also broke protocol to receive his guest at the airport ' it appeared the nuclear deal had been done.
But it was not so as delegations from the two sides worked into the night to smooth the crimps.
Bush, who made a surprise four-hour stop at Kabul said at the Afghan capital: “It is a difficult issue for the Indian government. It is a difficult issue for the American government. So, we continue to dialogue and work and hopefully we can reach an agreement. If not, we will continue to work on that until we do.”
After a meeting of the cabinet committee on political affairs, the Prime Minister said there was a “90 per cent chance” of the nuclear deal being concluded during Bush’s visit.
Some intense negotiations were taking place, even as the US President was flying to India, as Bush himself revealed.
“Our people are talking to Indians today on the plane about trying to come to a civilian nuclear power agreement,” Bush said in Kabul.
The two national security advisers ' Stephen Hadley and M.K. Narayanan ' were speaking to each other, a dialogue they continued into the night, assisted by aides.
Under-secretary of state Nicholas Burns, who was in India last week to try and sew up loose ends of the deal, and US ambassador David Mulford were present at the talks.
Narayanan was accompanied by foreign secretary Shyam Saran and the ambassador to the US, Ronen Sen.
Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who had spoken to the Prime Minister before leaving for India, had a private chat with Singh on the tarmac itself as Bush, in a dark blue suit and pink shirt, was being introduced to Indian officials who had come to receive him.
Several indications were available about the political will on either side to conclude the agreement which would lead to Indo-US cooperation on nuclear power for civilian use.
The sticking point has been the requirement of separating Indian civilian and military nuclear facilities.
Sources said even if an agreement was not clinched, Delhi and Washington might sign a statement of intent, though the deal first agreed between Bush and Singh during the Prime Minister’s trip to the US in July also was just that.
The decision to hold the cabinet committee meeting on the eve of his talks with Bush was interpreted as a move by Singh to obtain sanctions of his colleagues for commitments he might make. Singh met Sonia Gandhi earlier.
During a stopover at Shannon in Ireland, Rice singled out one particularly contentious subject. “The one thing that is absolutely necessary is that any agreement would assure that once India has decided to put a reactor under safeguard that it remain permanently under safeguard.”
Reactors burn uranium to produce plutonium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons. Once India separates the civilian facilities from the military ones, the former would come under international safeguards.
Bush stepped off Air Force One into the cool evening air in Delhi, but the atmosphere some kilometres away at Ramlila Grounds heated as thousands gathered to protest against his visit. There were demonstrations across the country, though the President wouldn’t see for himself any of these on his three-day trip, cocooned as he would be in a security bubble.