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N-deal has 'gone' with Burns: Indian Americans
Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC |
January 19, 2008 12:51 IST
The sudden decision by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns--the key US negotiator in the US-India civilian nuclear agreement-- to quit has left the pro-India lobby in American business circles, the Indian American community and Congressional leaders--who were all pushing for the deal--shell-shocked.
They are quite deflated, not to mention deeply concerned, that the deal now may never see the light of day.
In a surprising announcement on Friday morning, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who appeared with Burns, told reporters that, "This is very bittersweet for us because Nick Burns has decided that it is time for him to retire from the foreign service after 26 years of service to this country."
"He has decided that it is the right moment to go back to family concerns. And, while it is a sad thing for us, it's certainly something that I understand and respect," she said.
Rice, however, said that she had requested Burns that "after he retires, he will spend some time continuing to work on the India file, particularly because we would like to push the US Civil Nuclear Agreement to conclusion if possible, and Nick has agreed to continue that work".
Burns, 51, for his part promised that he had indeed acquiesced to Rice's request "to finish this very promising strategic opening with India, which will do so much good for our country and our global foreign policy."
Business and Indian-American community leaders said that a part-time Burns working on the deal in an advisory capacity wouldn't carry the same gravitas as the Administration's point man with a stamp of authority working with Congressional leaders in working to implement the deal.
Thus, all of them argued in interviews with rediff.com that it behooves of New Delhi to get it act to together and expeditiously negotiate the safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency and send the 123 Agreement back to Washington so that the administration can go to bat for the deal with the Nuclear Suppliers Group and also submit it to Congress for final approval.
President of the US-India Business Council Ron Somers, who called Burns "a true friend of India", said that negotiating the US-India nuclear deal was one of Burns' many achievements and recalled how he initially "succeeded in working with India in 2005 and early 2006 to arrive at a mutually acceptable separation plan for India's nuclear facilities--addressing key concerns of US lawmakers about nuclear proliferation".
Then, Somers said it was once again Burns who "worked closely with key members of Congress to ensure wide bipartisan support and passage of the Hyde Act in the last days of 2006 and in the last hours of the 109th Congress. In the process, Nick became the Administration's most articulate spokesman to make the case supporting deeper US-India ties".
And, once again, "In July last year, it was Nick, who successfully negotiated a first-of-its-kind' 123 Agreement with India, which provides for India to reprocess spend fuel--a landmark 'win' for India."
"All of these accomplishments represent an extraordinary contribution to US-India ties," he said.
Somers bemoaned that Burns leaves the administration "at a point when the nuclear deal is squarely, wholly and completely in India's court", and asserted that "at stake is India's internal, domestic choice to end its nuclear isolation".
He said "as for NSG openness to invite a nuclear- responsible India to engage in civilian nuclear trade, and passage by the US Congress of the 123 Agreement--these events can and will happen, depending on India's speed in clearing its safeguards agreement with the IAEA".
Hence, "The world awaits India's sovereign decision to end its nuclear isolation and to engage in global civilian nuclear trade," Somers said.
Congressman Tom Lantos, California Democrat and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a co-author of the Hyde Act and a driving force behind pushing for the consummation of the US-India nuclear deal, who described Burns as "among this country's finest public servants", said there was no denying that it was Burns who "has been instrumental in bringing the US-India nuclear cooperation agreement to fruition, and thereby opening a new era in US-India friendship and cooperation".
"It is no exaggeration to say that without his indefatigable efforts, this agreement would not be possible," he said.
Lantos said that he and Burns "have enjoyed a fruitful working relationship for many years, and I always looked forward to this testimony before our committee. He is exceptionally knowledgeable and dedicated, and I have nothing but the deepest respect for him and his work".
North Carolina entrepreneur Swadesh Chatterjee, who founded the US-India Friendship Council, and brought all of the community organisations under its umbrella solely to mobilize support for then nuclear deal and was catalytic in pushing through the enabling legislation through the Congress, working closely with US business, said Burns' departure was "very sad news, saying it is a big loss, is an understatement."
Chatterjee predicted that the absence of Burns in pushing for the deal, would be profoundly felt and could very well signal the death knell of the accord.
"He took it so personally, apart from pushing for it in his job as a diplomat," Chatterjee, who became a close friend of Burns, and last year held a massive community reception to honor Burns with a special award, said.
He noted that Burns' "relationship with the Congress, relationship with the White House, relationship with the business community and us in the Indian American community, showed how committed he was and how dedicated he was to cement this relationship."
"This is a tremendous loss for us for getting this deal through, I'm telling you," he said, and argued that without his official stamp of authority after he leaves government he would necessarily carry the gravitas to get the deal through Congress.
"His connections with the Congress, he cannot take advantage of that when you are outside, unlike when you are on the inside and when you can build up the relationships with the Congressional leaders and keep them informed of all the developments."
Chatterjee said, "But, when you become an ex-official, it's a completely different ball-game.'
He hoped that New Delhi could re-double its efforts to get the agreement back to Washington before Burns leaves in March "so that we can all once again push for it to be ultimately implemented, but if this doesn't happen, then all bets may very well be off".
Sources said it would likely be Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Richard Boucher, who would carry the water on the nuclear deal and become the point person for dealing with the Congress.