New Delhi, June 2: India and the US are “closer and closer” to wrapping up their nuclear deal, though it could take a few more rounds to breach the final frontier, beyond perhaps George Bush and Manmohan Singh’s German tryst next week.
“So far, we are well on our way to (finalising the deal), in fact we are close to doing so,” foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon told a news conference today after three days of talks with his US counterpart Nicholas Burns.
“We are closer and closer to being entirely on the same page,” he added, in what was the most positive spin yet on the complex agreement.
Despite the “considerable progress”, Menon conceded there was still a “gap”. “There are so many issues that are interlinked, but both have the will to make successful conclusions,” he said.
The conference came late in the evening after Burns had called on the Prime Minister, possibly to scotch speculation that the talks hadn’t gone well.
The Americans, however, came out with a much less effusive press release, saying only that both sides had “made some progress”. “While there has been good cooperation, more work remains to be done…” the release said.
Menon said both sides already had a “political understanding” on the deal, and the task now was to translate that into a legal agreement.
Still, the stage seemed set for fresh talks. After the meeting in Germany, Menon said US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice had been invited to India, and both sides were working on the dates of her visit, sometime in July-end or early August. That is likely to be followed by another high-level encounter when Manmohan visits America in September.
Clearly, the sticky points — like India’s right to conduct nuclear tests and reprocess spent fuel — have still not been resolved.
But the presence of a representative of the atomic energy department, R. Grover, at the briefing was meant to dispel the impression that the department and other parts of the government, such as the foreign ministry, were not on the same side.
Nuclear experts had voiced reservations about the deal, saying it would compromise India’s nuclear sovereignty.
The day also saw meetings between top BJP leaders and the Prime Minister as well as between the Opposition and the Americans, signalling a political momentum was in the offing to possibly sugar-coat the deal’s complexities.
Manmohan and his cabinet colleagues Pranab Mukherjee and Shivraj Patil met L.K. Advani and Jaswant Singh this morning. Although the main topic of discussion was a solution to the Rajasthan crisis, sources said the nuclear deal also came up.
The sources said the BJP seemed to be veering around to supporting the government on the deal, which, they added, amounted to a political breakthrough. The BJP’s main concern, the sources added, was the independence of India’s nuclear weapons programme.
In the afternoon, Burns met Jaswant, before returning to Hyderabad House for the talks with Menon.