Nuke boss in two minds on trip to US

Read more below

By K.P.NAYAR in Washington
  • Published 12.07.07

Washington, July 12: As he packs his bags for next week’s decisive talks here with the Bush administration on the nuclear deal, national security adviser M.K. Narayanan is discovering to his dismay that he has to negotiate not only with the Americans, but also with his own delegation.

With his typical cunning, the hallmark of a life-long intelligence officer, Narayanan proposed to Anil Kakodkar, chairman of the atomic energy commission, on Sunday that Kakodkar should accompany him and foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon next week to Washington for what is viewed here as make-or-break talks with the US on the so-called 123 Agreement to operationalise the nuclear deal.

Kakodkar had last week nominated his protege, Ravi Grover, who has the dual titles of director of the Department of Atomic Energy’s Strategic Planning Group and associate director of the Technical Coordination and International Relations Group at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, to travel to the US for the negotiations.

It was Grover’s mastery over technical details that prevented the Americans from pulling the wool over the Indians during technical talks in London in May on the 123 Agreement’s text, which is still eluding a consensus.

Kakodkar agreed to Narayanan’s proposal and on Monday it was conveyed to the Americans in New Delhi that the czar of India’s nuclear establishment would be part of next week’s talks.

For the national security adviser, who will be leading the Indian negotiating team for the first time since the announcement of the Indo-US nuclear deal, Kakodkar’s willingness to go to Washington was a big win. If Kakodkar is right there in the negotiations, he cannot carp later on about any sellout by India in the 123 Agreement, Narayanan calculated.

Besides, without Kakodkar’s presence, the Indians would have had to tell the Americans that they needed to get back to the atomic scientists for consultations on any compromise that the Bush administration may propose.

Most of all, Narayanan calculated that the scientific community’s confidence in the negotiating process would be strengthened by Kakodkar’s presence.

However, at the time of writing, Kakodkar has developed doubts about the wisdom of going to Washington at this stage.

Those in his establishment who have reservations about the nuclear deal have told Kakodkar, rightly, that given the format of next week’s round, he could be reduced to a bystander and an observer in the negotiations. That is because if there is a deadlock in the talks next Tuesday or Wednesday, Narayanan would be talking to his US counterpart, Stephen Hadley, to break the impasse.

Menon, for his part, would be dealing with his opposite number in the Bush administration, Nicholas Burns.

Almost everybody else in the Indian team will have a US counterpart: except Kakodkar.

The Prime Minister’s Office is hoping that Kakodkar will not change his mind. His withdrawal from the negotiating team could be a bad augury for next week’s meetings, which will have all the substance of an Indo-US summit on the nuclear deal.

Most of the men and women who would have advised US President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on a final decision at any structured summit would be at Tuesday’s talks.

These talks further acquired the trappings of a summit yesterday when Bush and Singh talked on the phone and signalled a political push for the negotiations.

The only other Indian negotiator next week without an American counterpart will be D.B. Venkatesh Varma, an Indian Foreign Service officer now on deputation to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Varma is the only PMO official who can read the minds of both Narayanan and external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee, having worked with both men.

He will shortly be moving to Geneva to deal with disarmament and his presence in the negotiating team is an indication of India’s strategy to deal with the fallout of the nuclear deal on the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty and related issues to be negotiated at the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.