The only thing that is certain is that if the process drags out into the next year, the nuclear deal will go into cold storage till the new leaders of the two countries reach a level of comfort with each other and the issue.
Our starving nuclear installations will remain monuments of lack of political insight, ideological dogma and confrontational mindset. The nuclear deal will not be an election issue in the United States. Foreign affairs, even Iraq, will not be in the forefront. But it will figure prominently in India like the inscrutable 'foreign hand' has played a role in previous elections. The moves of the government and the Opposition will be determined by this fact.
If the government is serious about moving the deal forward and not seeking an 'honourable exit' as a Leftist spokesman claimed, even at the risk of losing its majority in Parliament, it has to move swiftly and with orchestrated precision.
The scene has already shifted to Vienna and the waltz there will determine the outcome. In considering the next steps, the rules of the International Atomic Energy Agency as well as the practices in the Nuclear Suppliers Group will have to be weighed carefully.
There is a theory being floated by some political parties and others that once the deal goes to the IAEA Board, it will be on 'auto pilot' and the government will have no control over its progress through the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the United States Congress.
The deal would be like a flight that recently overflew Mumbai without timely action by the pilots. They believe that new conditions will be added without India's consent or even knowledge! Nothing would be further from the truth. India will be repeatedly asked to explain the different clauses of the agreement and we will have to continue to lobby with the doubting Thomases to relent. There is no automaticity to the process and the deal may be tied up in knots. India will still be in the driving seat and skilful piloting will be required to reach it to the desired destination.
Another theory is that if India goes to the IAEA and the NSG with a minority or caretaker government in place, the international community will refuse to give the necessary approvals because of lack of majority support for the government. The US has already stated that it could not be bothered whether the government that signs the deal has the required majority in Parliament or not. They are very tolerant of aberrations in democracies in developing countries.
The other members of the Board would not be concerned about this aspect. The basic fact is that the IAEA is a specialised agency of the United Nations and the rules that apply there are the same rules that do not care about the nature of the governments in member States.
As long as the Indian governor on the Board remains loyal to the government, no one will ask whether his government is in a majority or not, particularly if there is constitutional propriety in its functioning. Of course, there is a mechanism by which the credentials of the governor can be challenged, but the precedents for such challenges in the United Nations are few and exceptional. In the IAEA, the only precedent was when Israel's credentials were challenged soon after the bombing of the Ossirak reactor, a case of a very different nature.
As to whether an IAEA spokesperson was right in his prediction that the whole matter could be dealt with if the board is given two days notice and half a session, nobody can say. Indeed, many routine safeguards agreements are approved in less time. He was talking about issues on which there is general consensus and the board approval is a matter of formality.
On contentious issues like Iran, the Board is known to have dragged on, while the matter was negotiated in small groups. The Board can meet at short notice, but nobody can dictate the speed. Since the agreement in question is India specific and its clauses have been debated in the media, the members may be ready with questions about its desirability and viability.
Director General Mohammad Elbaradei has tremendous prestige and a recommendation from him has much weight, but this is not a proposal from him and he cannot go beyond a point in championing its cause. His support has been personal and not constitutional as the deal is outside the purview of the NPT, which he is supposed to guard and implement.
The NSG is not even a formal body and its record so far is in tightening, not relaxing its 'guidelines.' The unpredictability is even greater here because of the consensus rule, which enables the smallest and the most insignificant supplier, with the least interest in the deal, to show his might. They do not have to oppose the deal to kill it; they merely have to ask general questions on proliferation dangers and open up a Pandora's Box on India's nuclear assets.
Issues of principle in treating India differently from others will be raised. The deal could remain entangled in a new set of issues for a long time. The outcome will determine the success we have registered in lobbying the NSG members in the last two years. As far as China is concerned, its attitude cannot be anticipated as yet.
None of these scenarios need to deter the government from going forward because these issues will not be resolved unless they are actually tried out. If it has the courage to defy its leftist allies, there is no better time to tackle these issues than now. An enthusiastic US administration, a supportive IAEA director general and the mood for a nuclear renaissance because of the price of fossil fuels and the dangers of climate change are factors that may not be available if the present opportunity is lost.
Note: I must thank Air India, without whose poor maintenance of its aircraft, this would not have been written. I flew Air India Business Class from Delhi to New York the other day. I tried to read, but the reading lights were out of order. Then I tried to watch a movie, but the screen in front of me would not respond to the commands from me. The only thing I could do was to pull out my laptop and write. Of course, the power plug on my chair did not work, but a change of seat did the trick!