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September 9, 1998


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PM to call all-party meet over CTBT

George Iype in New Delhi

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee will soon convene a meeting of all political parties to prepare the ground for a national consensus on India signing the controversial Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and thereby joining the global non-proliferation regime.

Five rounds of strategic talks between India's chief negotiator Jaswant Singh and the United States Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott since June 12 are reported to have yielded positive results. But the only dead-end in the otherwise remarkably successful Indo-US dialogue has been India's indecisiveness on the CTBT.

While the Vajpayee coalition government has virtually acknowledged the need for signing the CTBT, the Bharatiya Janata Party leadership fears that a hasty decision on the subject could be politically risky and therefore disastrous.

Nearly all the Opposition parties led by the Congress and the Left Front are vehemently against India signing the CTBT.

BJP strategists are now debating whether signing the global treaty will put the precariously-placed Vajpayee government into trouble, especially on the eve of crucial assembly elections in the country.

Vajpayee's effort, therefore, is to take major political parties into confidence and assure them of the gains that India will accrue by agreeing to sign the CTBT.

The gains could include the lifting of economic sanctions against India, relaxation of the ban on the export to India of dual use nuclear related technologies and equipment, acceptance by Western powers of nuclear deployment in India's armed forces and an improved strategic relationship between India and the US.

Official sources confirmed that the prime minister will convene an all-party meeting on CTBT before he leaves for New York on September 22 to address the United Nations General Assembly.

A section of senior government officials and security experts are said to have advised Vajpayee to assure the UN General Assembly about India's readiness to sign the CTBT, but without pledging a time-frame.

''India has already accepted and recognised the spirit of the CTBT by declaring a unilateral moratorium on nuclear explosions soon after the Pokhran tests,'' pointed out an official.

He said even though there is now a growing recognition in the government and among foreign policy experts that signing the CTBT will be in India's interests, ''what we lack now is a political consensus on the issue.''

Majority political opinion in India is that the government cannot agree to the CTBT without any gains for the country in return. But Pakistan's willingness to sign the treaty without waiting for India and the Western nations' unwillingness to indulge India on any pre-conditions vis-a-vis the CTBT has put the Vajpayee government on the horns of a dilemma.

Last month, Vajpayee himself told Parliament that the country did not have any real reason to oppose the CTBT as -- after the May nuclear tests -- the treaty is no longer discriminatory to India.

But the government has desisted from taking any concrete steps in this regard fearing adverse political fallout and due to extreme opinion within the BJP leadership.

Since signing the CTBT is an emotive issue for major Opposition parties like the Congress and the Left Front, many BJP leaders fear that the issue has the potential to rock the minority Vajpayee government.

The Congress could publicise the CTBT signature as a sellout of vital security interests. The party's Pachmarhi conclave last week urged the government to refrain from signing the treaty and press for global disarmament.

''The Congress will oppose tooth and nail any move from the Vajpayee government to sign the CTBT because we are not ready to accept a half-baked global non-proliferation regime,'' Natwar Singh, who heads the foreign affairs cell in the Congress, told Rediff On The NeT.

He said ever since the nuclear tests in May, the Vajpayee government has been talking and behaving in a partisan manner on vital security issues like the CTBT. ''The government cannot keep the Opposition parties in the dark as to what is happening in the crucial Singh-Talbott talks,'' Singh remarked.

''If the Vajpayee government is eager to sign the CTBT just because that will bring US President Bill Clinton to India this year, then it will be a disastrous decision,'' the Congress leader warned.

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