Indian PM Takes Flak Over Nuclear Deal

Daily News Article   —   Posted on February 28, 2006

(by Deepak Mahaan, New Delhi – As political temperatures rise here ahead of President Bush’s first visit to India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has tried to fend off domestic criticism by insisting that India’s nuclear weapons program would not be compromised by a proposed nuclear cooperation deal with the United States.

It is India, not the U.S., that would decide which nuclear facilities are to be opened for international inspection, Singh told lawmakers.

Bush hopes to clinch the landmark nuclear agreement during his visit, but negotiations have – in the prime minister’s words – been “difficult and delicate.”

U.S. analysts say that strong relations with Delhi make sense for America, not just because India is the world’s largest democracy, but because of the role it can play in balancing China’s rise in Asia.

Bush first offered the nuclear cooperation deal last July, saying the U.S. would supply nuclear energy to India on condition it separate its civilian and military nuclear facilities and put the civilian ones under international safeguards.

The requirement to separate civil and military programs is critical, because the U.S. wants to ensure that military programs do not benefit from the transfer of nuclear technology to the energy-hungry country.

Opinion here has been mixed over whether the agreement would be good or bad for India.

Opposition lawmakers as well as some of Singh’s allies, joined by top scientists, have accused the government of compromising India’s strategic interests – or at least of not spelling out the exact terms of nuclear cooperation agreement with the U.S.

There also is considerable suspicion that the U.S. is making the deal conditional on India’s willingness to support international efforts to act against Iran and its nuclear programs.

Some members of the U.S. Congress – which will have to approve the administration’s proposal – have explicitly linked the two, arguing that if India wants to enjoy nuclear cooperation with the U.S. it should make clear its position on proliferation in Iran’s case.

India has twice voted against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), most recently in the decision to refer Tehran to the U.N. Security Council.

Prakash Karat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – an ally whose support is needed for the Singh government to survive – charged that India was “conced[ing] its vital interests to accommodate the U.S.”

Citing India’s IAEA votes against Iran, Karat said the U.S. was arm-twisting India into accepting an unequal strategic partnership, and predicted that Washington’s demands would grow further in future.

While the Communists’ antipathy towards the U.S. are not unexpected – the party plans nationwide protests against Bush during his visit – even the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which while in government was friendly to the U.S., claims the nuclear agreement compromises India’s sovereignty.

Singh dismissed the allegations, saying Monday the government had judged every U.S. proposal on its merits.

Nonetheless, a major stumbling block has emerged over the division of civilian and military facilities.

U.S. negotiators reportedly want the list of civilian facilities to include “fast-breeder” reactors, which theoretically yield more nuclear fuel than they consume and are a source of plutonium for both civilian and military purposes.

But the chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), Anil Kakodkar, disagreed, saying in a newspaper interview that it was India’s right to identify nuclear facilities as civilian or military. Kakodkar runs both the civilian and military nuclear programs.

“The fast-breeder issue is potentially a deal-breaker; and unless differences are resolved on it, the entire agreement could collapse,” said Achin Vanaik, professor of international relations and global politics at Delhi University, and an independent nuclear expert.

Vanaik said Kakodkar’s public statement on the matter had complicated the talks and narrowed the Indian government’s negotiating options.

In a poll by the popular newsweekly magazine “Outlook,” almost 66 percent of respondents said they regarded Bush as a friend of India, although they also felt him to be closer to Pakistan.

Seventy-two percent of respondents said the U.S. had not done enough to help India in its fight against terrorism.

In a poll of 21 countries commissioned by the BBC World Service shortly after Bush won his second term, India was one of three countries whose respondents believed Bush’s re-election would be positive for world peace and security. The other two were the Philippines and Poland.

(CNSNews International Editor Patrick Goodenough contributed to this report.)

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