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The Age of Miracles is not over yet

August 11, 2008 16:27 IST
Here is one thing I never expected to see: The Indian tricolour rising as the Indian anthem played, both marking the first Indian to win an individual gold medal at the Olympic Games. Congratulations to Abhinav Bindra -- and the hope that this will be one of many more!

Here is a second thing I never expected to see -- the general secretary of the CPI-M --- along with all his fellow ideologists of course putting his faith in the Congress when it comes to the ever-vexed issue of the nuclear deal -- this just after Comrade Karat said it would be difficult to mend ties with the Congress.

Surprised? Well, the second Congress -- the one that supposedly 'betrayed' the CPI-M - is the Congress-I. And the first Congress -- the one on whose integrity the Marxists are secretly pinning their hopes -- is the Congress of the United States of America.

The nuclear deal has already received the imprimatur of the International Atomic Energy Agency. It should pass the scrutiny of the Nuclear Suppliers Group if the Bush administration puts its weight behind the deal (although the ministers in New Delhi are far more nervous than they care to admit in public). Pakistan's attitude hogged the headlines at the International Atomic Energy Agency meeting, but several others -- Japan, Norway, and Brazil for instance -- said that their support at the International Atomic Energy Agency could be balanced by 'reservations' at the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

That said, even the lame-duck Bush administration carries enough clout to persuade the reluctant.

The White House is, however, almost powerless to twist arms in the United States Congress. Both chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate alike, are controlled by the Democrats, who are in no mood to give the unpopular Republican president the joy of a foreign policy victory. The Democrats are not necessarily opposed to the deal with India, but will they bend the rules to pass the agreement?

The problem is the time. The Manmohan Singh ministry waited so late to take on the Left Front that it has pushed matters to the very brink. The Nuclear Suppliers Group will not meet before August 21.

India has no seat in that assembly, and it is entirely up to the United States to make the running.

Now, here is the crunch: America's Nuclear Energy Act (1954) says the president must consult with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Relations Committee for no less than 30 days, when the US Congress is in session. The legislative calendar states that the US Congress shall convene on September 8 and then go into recess as of September 26 (40 days before the presidential election). That makes it an 18-day session rather than the 30 mandated under American law.

What are India's options? The first is to hope that the Nuclear Suppliers Group rushes through its schedule, enabling the Bush administration to start the process with the Senate and the House literally within the hour. This, frankly, is possible but not terribly probable.

The second option is to hope that the US Congress comes back for a so-called 'lame duck' session, which is to say a session after the elections on November 4. This would be perfectly legal and there would be no 30-day deadline hanging over legislators' heads but the difficulty is that the Speaker of the House has already declared that there shall be no such session.

This leaves only a third option, namely that the Rules Committee of the House of Representatives grants a special waiver to the Indian deal. What are the chances of this happening?

Shortly after that dramatic vote in the Lok Sabha, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice received a letter from Howard Berman, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee in the House of Representatives. The relevant portion reads: 'I find it incomprehensible that the administration apparently intends to seek or accept an exemption from the Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines for India with few or none of the conditions contained in the Henry J Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006.'

I have no idea why Howard Berman is opposed to the nuclear deal. The 28th Congressional District of California which he represents is predominantly Hispanic, without any chunk of particularly anti-Indian votes. Be that as it may, Berman has the power to delay the nuclear deal being put to vote if he cannot derail it altogether. The problem lies in the fact that this is one case where delaying may be tantamount to derailing.

George Bush is, as Dr Manmohan Singh once exuberantly claimed, possibly the best friend that India has ever had in the White House.

There is no guarantee that his successor will be equally well disposed. Irrespective of whether McCain or Obama wins the race on November 4, their agenda shall be dominated by Iraq and the economy, with little energy left to push for the deal with India.

Technically, other nations could go ahead and sell technology and material to India once it gets a nod from the Nuclear Suppliers Group even if the US Congress fails to ratify the 1-2-3 Agreement. But that is a technicality; it will be difficult for Australia and Canada to sell uranium in the absence of clear American approval. (Those two are to uranium roughly what West Asia is to petroleum.)

If these are the problems, what is the solution? The cleanest option is for the Rules Committee of the House of Representatives to offer a waiver from the 30-day rule. The Bush White House may do its best, but it will also need a lot of work from the so-called 'NRI lobby', Americans of Indian origin. If you are an Indian who believes the nuclear agreement is, broadly speaking, a good thing, write to such of your friends and relatives who happen to be American citizens and ask them to speak to their own representative.

(The US Senate has its own set of rules, and here even a single senator can, potentially, hold up the deal. However, the Senate also seems more inclined to approve of the deal; the problems, if any, are more likely to be in the House of Representatives.)

The CPI-M Politburo failed to convince the Congress-I. To derail the nuclear deal, the Marxists must now hope that the US Congress shall uphold its own rules, and insist on the 30 days of consultation required by law.

The Manmohan Singh ministry would have us believe that the nuclear deal went into 'autopilot' after the Lok Sabha vote. That is simply not true -- it must be piloted through the Nuclear Suppliers Group by the White House and through the House of Representatives by Indian-Americans.

It will take a minor miracle for the deal to beat the clock ticking away in the US Congress, but Abhinav Bindra just proved that the age of miracles isn't over yet.

T V R Shenoy