Washington, May 3: A chance remark by Atomic Energy Commission chairman Anil Kakodkar in January paved the way out of a stalemate that was threatening to derail the Indo-US nuclear deal, according to several officials intimately involved in the negotiations.
During an animated discussion in New Delhi some three months ago about consistent technology denial by the US for India stretching over decades, Kakodkar said the so-called 123 agreement, now being negotiated between India and the US under intense public scrutiny, was not the first such pact between the two countries.
The head of India’s nuclear establishment — which has no shortage of key people who would not be unhappy to see the demise of the Indo-US nuclear deal — reminded those present and arguing for compromise with Washington that the original arrangement on Tarapore between the two countries was a 123 agreement.
That agreement had very specific provisions for reliable supplies to Tarapore for its whole life. Kakodkar pointed out that it did not prevent the Americans from reneging on that 123 pact.
India must learn from that bitter experience and not make a mistake of getting into the trap of a badly negotiated 123 deal with Washington, Kakodkar argued, according to two persons present at that discussion.
Foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon and US undersecretary of state for political affairs Nicholas Burns agreed on Tuesday that if they could not get a 123 agreement that both sides wanted, they would agree on a 123 pact that was realistically possible under the present circumstances.
In accepting that approach, they implicitly accepted Kakodkar’s suggestion that a 123 agreement need not be a holy cow and that it does not have to fit into any rigid framework, though no one at Tuesday’s negotiations may have realised the genesis of this new approach was Kakodkar’s chance remark.
This could be a win-win situation for India if its negotiators are able to traverse the minefield that their US counterparts will prepare for them in the coming weeks.
The American inter-agency process that has to put its seal on the agreed 123 text has to take into account the conflicting views of nuclear ayatollahs here, technology transfer hawks, lobbyists for the US nuclear industry, and above all, political compulsions on Capitol Hill.
Menon and Burns also have to get the final seal of approval for this new approach from their political bosses by the time the US pointman for the nuclear deal travels to Delhi in a couple of weeks.
If India negotiates well, the 123 pact that is expected to be finalised later this month will just about meet the minimum benchmarks that are required by the 45 member states of the Nuclear Suppliers Group that controls international nuclear commerce to let India into their exclusive club.
The original American hope was to tie India up in knots through a 123 agreement with all sorts of provisions that would have amounted to imposing on Delhi through the backdoor the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which it has refused to sign.
That was what Strobe Talbott, former President Bill Clinton’s deputy secretary of state, tried to do for two years and was frustrated in those efforts by the NDA government’s Jaswant Singh.
It is still early to take comfort that India has got what it wanted. All that the new approach gives Delhi is some more breathing space in the long struggle to be accepted as a nuclear weapons state.
And the possibility that some of the technology denial it has faced will now be out of the way.