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The Rediff Interview/Graham Wisner

N-deal: 'We can pull it off at NSG'

August 21, 2008

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For the past two years, Graham Wisner, counsel at the top international lobbying firm of Patton Boggs, headquartered in Washington, DC, has been the point man on Capitol Hill for US business and industry to push through the US-India civilian nuclear deal, ever since his firm was retained by the US-India Business Council.

In an interview with India Abroad's Aziz Haniffa, the rediff.com owned newspaper in the United States, he discusses the constraints of the Congressional calendar, the opposition from Congressman Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to the deal, and other impediments to pushing through the agreement this year, and even as he expresses confidence that it can be done, acknowledges that it depends largely on the Nuclear Suppliers Group endorsing the accord when it meets in Vienna [Images] on August 21-22 so that the administration can have it ready for action by the US Congress when it reconvenes September 8. Excerpts from the interview:

The approval by the International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors of the India safeguards agreement was always considered a formality, but obviously it's not going to be plain sailing at the NSG where probably the end game of the US-India nuclear deal really begins before it reverts here and the US Congress can either vote up or down on it?

It's been known that at the NSG, to get a unanimous verdict is going to require a lot of consultations and a lot of work, It's not an easy job. There's nobody who thought that the IAEA is going to be quite the lift (to catalyse consensus at the NSG). But am I still confident that we are going to pull it of? Yes, I am and I think the Indian government and the US government are in a full court press. I recognise that the entire process, because it got a late start coming out of India, has made for a lot of work ahead of us, but I believe we can pull it off.

Essentially what have you been doing while waiting for the NSG process to play itself out?

We have been organising from our side and that really means bringing all of us in industry to bear on this. There is not a company -- not just the technology companies and others who will directly benefit from this -- who is not part of this process and they are all engaged and of course, many of them have friends around the country and all of the Congressional districts. We know what tasks lie ahead. We've tried to convince the 12 Senators who voted against the deal and the 69 Representatives (in the House who opposed the enabling Hyde Act) and we'd like to see if we can convince a number of them that the NSG and the IAEA and the extraordinary act of courage of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] means something. Also (IAEA chief Mohamed) ElBaradei's and everybody else's support is very significant. So, we may be able to peel off some of this opposition.

You mentioned how it's become so broad-based to the extent that there's such a consensus among the companies unlike what you earlier perceived would be just by the American firms and industry that could specifically benefit from this agreement?

Absolutely. The big lift for everybody is how the passage of the civil nuclear agreement opens up investment in infrastructure. You know that public infrastructure is extremely expensive. The international community has got to believe that India is on a steady course, that the big infrastructure projects including power projects, which are undertaken at great risk over the long-term, are going to be carried through on and that is why this agreement is more than just an agreement. It is also a sign that India is pushing forward and encouraging investment and technology to rebuild and to build India's infrastructure which is going to be a hugely expensive process.

In the midst of all of this, even before the NSG countries have met to consider the deal, Congressman Howard Berman (chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee) has fired a salvo, which I believe even though addressed to (US Secretary of State Condoleezza) Condi Rice about concerns over the 123 Agreement and its inconsistencies with the Hyde Act has also been circulated to members of the NSG to indicate that the US Congress has qualms about this deal too. How do you'll intend to respond to this because won't such opposition within the constraints of the Congressional calendar before the year is out, compound efforts to get it through?

Here's how we play it. Every great piece of legislation that has ever come to Congress has happened because of the confluence of extraordinary events and I point to the Civil Rights Act -- the very sad deaths of Martin Luther King and both the Kennedys -- really paved the ground. Now, this is fortunately not anywhere near the same situation, but we believe that the time is now for the agreement and that all the forces are aligned for passage in this session, that the IAEA and the NSG and Dr Singh's performance have all sort of essentially built the case for action now.

Next year, we could look at a very different political situation both in India and in the United States and so when we say, as we are saying to our supporters in the Democratic Party, that the time is now -- that the stars are aligned for the passage in this session -- and when none of us know whether there is going to be a lame-duck session or not. The betting is no more than 50-50 and none of us know what will happen in the next administration. Whether the government will continue to rule India for a long period or whether it could possibly lose its footing, and so there's a strong sense inside the Democratic leadership that if you care about India, now is the time to stand up for it. Now is not the time to postpone until the next administration.

But while indeed there was the overwhelming vote in both the House and Senate and it's unlikely that a majority couldn't be found for the up or down vote when it does happen and this is not going to be the problem, to make it happen isn't it crucial to get the leadership on board and considering that Berman is part of the leadership, how does all this factor in?

You are absolutely right. He is part of the leadership and he is watching a lot of issues out there, obviously trying to position his party for an electoral victory and perhaps a long period of governance -- I say perhaps, because nobody knows and that is one of the reasons why it is so important to act now. And, so, are we concerned? Of course, we are. He is a critically important gentleman and of course, whether there can be a hastening of the procedure in the House, will very much depend upon his approach.

He has already said to us that he recognised that this bill is a (the late Congressman Tom) Lantos (who was chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and co-author of the Hyde Act and a staunch supporter of the deal) legacy and the extraordinary leadership that Lantos exhibited is not to be forgotten. Of course, there are plenty who believe very seriously that Berman is a strong defender of the non-proliferation regime and I think that he is responsible like any Democratic leader to that portion of the party, which is very concerned about proliferation aspects.

On the other hand, he is equally concerned, more so, about the extraordinary importance of the India-US relationship and India's overall relationship to the world. And, so, I don't think the Democratic Party can succeed without a full friendship with India. So, are we going to make these points to him? Yes. We are very friendly with him. We know and like him. He is an extremely smart guy and he just doesn't want to roll over and obviously wants to have a roll. But, at the end of the day, we are convinced that he's a man of reason, that he will understand the need for this to go through and so we are confident that the US government, the Indian government, and the NSG will come to terms, which are acceptable to all the parties. And, we are not in that game. I mean, we are businesspersons foremost. We don't try to tell anybody what they should or shouldn't be negotiating at the NSG. That's not in our brief.

You mean whether it's a clean exemption, a little dirty or whatever it is?

If it's clean or a little dirty, however, you want to characterise it, if the Indian government accepts that, then that's fine with us -- if the US and Indian government (accepts it) I should say. We are all about in making sure that both political sides of the equation are satisfied so we can get it through now without any delay. We think the enemy is delay because we think that the opposition would just like to drag this on until some of the underlying political realities have changed. And, then just like with the civil rights legislation years ago, all of a sudden, what has been an extraordinary piece of legislation could not have taken place had there not been certain acts of courage along the way. So, that's very much how we see it.

Essentially what you'll are looking for now is that with the constraints of the Congressional calendar, the logistics behind it and everything else, that all of these people get their act together and that it quickly comes back to the Congress so that you guys can get to work on it with the lawmakers and the leadership?

September 8, it's supposed to be back in front of the Congress. That's when Congress comes back in session and everything should be done. If there are still debates going on at the NSG and no vote has been taken or no consensus has been taken, then I think it is going to be very difficult. But we are confident. The administration has told us that they believe it will be ready and they are asking for basically a clean bill -- no conditions or the most minimal conditions which would be acceptable to the Indians.

So, all I can say is that's what we are preparing ourselves for. We realize that when it hits the ground that the clock is ticking and it's a very short period of time. So, we are deployed across the country, meeting with all these Congressmen in their districts, trying to get the world to them, that the clock is ticking on this extraordinary piece of legislation. We have worked the better part of two-and-a-half years on this.

Before the Henry Hyde Act passed we were already at it and all during this period in-between, we were trying to blow as much wind on the embers as we could to see, that essentially it happened. We all stayed up all night long watching the Indian political process evolve and all of us were extremely exicted and proud of Dr Singh's profile of courage. So, our firm has pulled out all the stops and we know that we are in the last mile right now and so there's a full court press by our firm, by industry, by the foreign policy experts, the people who care about the India-US relationship -- I mean this is an extraordinary joint effort. And, so, I am confident.


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