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Saran positive about N-deal meetings

April 01, 2006 11:34 IST
Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran on Saturday, met Senators Joe Biden, of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the committee and rising star Barack Obama of Illinois to pitch the importance of the deal, but received no promises of their endorsement.

Thus far, only about a half-a-dozen members of the Committee, all Republicans have co-sponsored the legislation  to amend the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 to provide an India-specific exemption so that the US-India civilian deal can be consummated.

Among the Republicans on the Committee who have signed on the bill, besides Lugar who introduced it, are Senators Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, George Allen of Virginia, Sam Brownback of Kansas, and Norm Coleman of Minnesota. Neither Biden nor freshman Obama nor other senior Democrats like Senators Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Bill Nelson of Florida, and John Kerry of Massachusetts have lent their names as co-sponsors.

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Another notable absentee, who although not a committee member, has not co-sponsored the legislation is Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, co-chair of the Friends of India Caucus in the US Senate. This has left the other co-chair GOP Senator John Cornyn, who took to the Senate floor more than a month ago to make a strong case on behalf of the deal, quite embarrassed, as are the Indian American community who have raised several thousands of dollars for the campaign coffers of Clinton and believed her to be an avowed support of the US-India strategic partnership.

The Indian embassy had asked for meetings for Saran with Clinton, Lugar, and Dodd too, but they had been cried off, and Congressional sources said there was some hesitancy of these lawmakers to meet with an Indian official at the time the legislation is to be dissected at a hearing with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testifying. They did not want any perception that they were being influenced by someone from the Indian government.

One source told rediff India abroad, "They will have no problem meeting with India's lobbyists, but meeting with a senior Indian official, and that too the chief Indian negotiator at this time could have been looked upon as subjecting themselves to the influence of a foreign government, and could make their support for the legislation - even if they had decided to do so in the first place, seem as if it had been influenced."

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Saran also met on the House side with Congressman Henry Hyde, Illinois Republican. Hyde also chairs the House International Relations Committee. Hyde, though having said that the final legislation to be debated on could contain 'possible conditions,' was upbeat and gave a positive spin, notwithstanding the lack of any endorsement and predicted that he believed there was strong support for the legislation in both committees.

The foreign secretary also met with the Democratic co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, Gary Ackerman of New York, former GOP co-chair Joe Wilson of South Carolina, Tom Lantos, California Democrat, and Eni Faleomavaega, Democrat from American Samoa - all members of the International Relations Committee who have pledged their support for the deal, with Lantos conditioning his strong endorsement of India's continued votes to isolate Iran.

Saran said, "In all these meetings, what really impressed me was as the administration had pointed out to me that there is very strong support for the India-US partnership - virtually all the Congressmen I met said that they saw a great future in the India-US relationship.

They were very excited about the progress that has already been made. They were very impressed by the very broad-ranging relationship which is emerging and were very pleasantly surprised at how quickly this transformation in the relationship has come about."

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He predicted, "I feel quite encouraged that once this agreement goes through the crucible after debate and discussion, what will emerge will actually be much stronger support for this initiative."

Saran, however, acknowledged that the two burning questions about the deal were that while everyone recognises the important of civilian nuclear cooperation, they fear it could trigger the unravelling of the Nuclear Nonproliferation regime and also an overriding concern that it could give India's strategic program a boost.

"So there were some general concerns of this kind expressed. Nobody mentioned to me that they were contemplating any amendments, or improvements," he said.

"Yes, they did say that this is something which is important and requires debate, which I conceded immediately because I think in democracies there should be debate."

Addressing the lack of co-sponsors on both the House - with its 180-member Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, which is the biggest country Caucus in this body - and the Senate, with its 40-member Friends of India Caucus - Saran defended the lukewarm response, saying, "I would like to mention here that these are early days yet, and whether or not there could be co-sponsors from the Democratic side or not, I think the sense we have is yes, there would be, as we go further into the debate."

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But obviously concerned over the lack of support by Democrats, particularly in the Senate, and specifically in the Foreign Relations Committee, Saran acknowledged that he had impressed upon Biden and Obama that the deal was not something which had "sort of just pulled out as a rabbit out of a hat. This is really the culmination of a process, which has straddled both Democratic as well as Republican Administrations." 

"So the ownership of this process is by both the parties and I feel that this particular bi-partisan consensus, which is behind the India-US partnership is something which will also apply to the civil nuclear energy agreement," he argued.

Saran said he had also impressed upon the lawmakers that the deal "should be seen as part and parcel of this much larger relationship, which has developed between the two countries. It should not be taken out of isolation."

He expressed confidence that he was "encouraged by the fact that there is such strong support on both sides for developing this relationship and I see no reason why only the civil nuclear energy deal should be a casualty in terms of partisan politics."

But Saran acknowledged that with regard to a timeline, "Obviously we would like this to be done as quickly as possible, but I have no means of knowing how the political processes here will work themselves out. So let us remain optimistic and hope that this will happen as early as possible.'

If ultimately it is not ratified, the foreign secretary admitted that undoubtedly "…there will be a loss in terms of the expectations, which have been built up. There will be a loss. We should be cognizant of that."

Saran refused to accept the contention that it was quite astonishing that even though India had bragging rights with the largest country caucus in both the House and the Senate, there seemed to be an allergy by members to be associated with this deal, which is one of President George W Bush's major foreign policy initiatives.

"I don't have the impression that nobody wants to be associated with this deal," he protested. "I think we have to meet the members of the Caucus, explain to them the importance of this deal, and I see no reason why we cannot mobilise enough support for this deal. So we are working on that. My visits around the Hill have been part of that process. So give us time."

But time is something the administration may not have, because if there is no action on the bill by late May or early June, and the debate drags on and gets caught up in the summer recess, Congressional sources say that once lawmakers come back in September, the only thing on their minds would be the November Congressional elections.

Compounding this is President Bush's fast deteriorating political capital - that is if there is any capital left at all - with many of his own party members trying to distance themselves from him to get re-elected.

Privately diplomatic sources, including those who have been involved in the negotiations, are worried that it would  "…be terrible if it becomes a partisan issue. Already, it is embarrassing. Now you have more than six Senators (on the Foreign Relations Committee) who are co-sponsoring, but all of them are Republicans. There isn't one Democrat who has agreed to co-sponsor the bill."

Meanwhile, the Indian American community is slowly but surely getting mobilised and have been briefed on the importance of the deal by the US negotiator of the agreement, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, and the government of India's lobbyists, former US Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill and former US Senator Birch Bayh.

On the day, Rice testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 5, the community has also taken a full-page ad in The Washington Post at the cost of nearly $50,000 exhorting the Congress to support the agreement, arguing that it is good for the national and security interests of both countries and would strengthen the nonproliferation regime and not weaken it as the nonproliferation lobby has been arguing.

Saran, asked if in the final analysis, some of the concerns by lawmakers like Hyde turn into conditions and in such a scenario whether India would be amenable to some kind of a compromise, completely ruled it out.

"As I have mentioned time and again," he said, "What has emerged out of these negotiations is a very, very delicate balance. We have been through extraordinarily complex and difficult negotiations - I should know because I have been involved with these negotiations."

"Therefore, I would very strongly hope that this delicate balance is not disrupted," Saran added.

Aziz Haniffa in Washington DC