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'India has enough uranium'

Gary Ackerman
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July 11, 2006
From the moment United States President George W Bush [Images] and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] announced the India-US civilian nuclear agreement, US Congressman Gary Ackerman has been a major supporter of the accord.

Through the year and more of endless debates and hearings, Ackerman -- the co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans and senior member of the House International Relations Committee -- has been a tireless advocate for the early passage of the deal in the Amercian parliament, the US Congress.

The Democrat from New York state has also been very critical of the Bush administration for what he described as its apathy and lack of verve in pushing for the ratification of the agreement in the US Congress. He has criticised the administration for not consulting with a cross-section of legislators in leadership positions who could move the ball along.

In a meeting with President Bush after the latter returned from his visit to India, Ackerman made no bones about telling him that he needed to be personally engaged on the issue and to help raise its profile if he was genuinely interested in making it happen.

Last fortnight, Ackerman, one of the additional co-sponsors of the Hyde/Lantos legislation that was approved by an overwhelming margin of 37-5 by the House International Relations Committee and sent to the US House of Representatives, was both ecstatic and hopeful that when the full House takes up the bill for debate and action, the Committee's unambiguous endorsement would be contagious.

In an exclusive interview with Rediff India Abroad National Affairs Editor Aziz Haniffa, Ackerman explains why he thinks the bill is likely to sail through the US Congress.

The House International Relations Committee marked up the India-US nuclear bill by a 37-5 margin. Would you say the number of votes in favour was as expected?

The vote was a spectacular, strong indication of where we are on this issue. It was much stronger than expected. We had much more support on the Democratic side, which showed great reasonableness. Some expressed amendments which were of concerns, but everybody, despite those concerns, knew that the issue was too big to fail and heartily supported it. I feel very, very good.

Does the overwhelming support augur well for the House vote itself?

I must say that 37-5 is a pretty good percentage. If we can hold that percentage, it would be great. I doubt that we can, but it was a spectacular showing to the House of where the Committee thinks the issue is and the importance of where the relationship is and where it is going.

We now take this to the floor with a great deal of confidence. I know some of my Republican friends were saying the Democrats weren't strongly supportive of this, and they have some other considerations that they are talking about. (But) There were more Republicans who voted against it than Democrats (Three Republicans, Jim Leach of Iowa, Chris Smith of New Jersey and Ted Poe of Texas, voted against, as did two Democrats, Diane Watson and Barbara Lee, both from California).

When you mentioned the Republicans were you referring to the charge that the Democrats were dragging their feet in order to deny President Bush a win in a major foreign policy initiative in the run-up to the November elections?

That was totally disproved. We wanted a vote on this. I being the first, and others who are Democrats, were the first ones aboard in support of the negotiation the president did very successfully with the prime minister, and the modifications were very minor and accepted.

Your senior Democratic colleague and longtime India Caucus member Congressman Berman had some amendments that you and Congressman Lantos described as 'killer amendments' -� in particular, his efforts to include the requirement that India should halt the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons if the deal were to be ratified by Congress. While they were defeated, did those amendments have merit?

They were worthy of consideration in hearing the arguments, and Mr Berman and Mr (Brad) Sherman (Democrat, California) kept coming from the same place -- which is, that the interest is that India or any other country that we would ever do this with does not take its entire domestic uranium production of fissile material and use that on the military side of the ledger, and then use the internationally procured material or uranium for the civilian side.

In other words, the issue they called 'fungibility'. It was worth listening to, it was interesting to hear, but I made the argument, and others echoed it, that the fact is that there is enough uranium in India. It is not that they don't have it, it is a matter of procedural or logistic challenge to get some of it out of the ground, because it is more expensive than other such material, etc. So that becomes just a function of dollars.

So it is not a matter of India not having the uranium it needs in order to continue both its civilian and whatever attention it wants to give to its military production. So they were worthy amendments for sure, but killer amendments as Mr Lantos and I indicated because this would have killed the agreement.

In the final analysis, the Berman-Sherman cabal from California, as you jokingly referred to them, as also Adam Schiff and several others who supported these amendments finally voted to facilitate the deal...

They know the deal is very important, and I think they were determined from the beginning to vote for the bill. They indicated that in conversations with me, but they wanted to allay the fears and concerns on the proliferation side, that those things wouldn't happen by putting these amendments in. Whether or not they would have killed the deal, we won't have to challenge if the bill succeeds in its current form and is signed by the president, which I anticipate it will be.

Are you saying that once they had, in a sense, gotten their message across -- even though those amendments were beaten back -- their vote in favour lent credence that in the larger scheme of things, what mattered was that the India-US strategic partnership wouldn't be compromised?

Of course, they are for it. They were never against it. They merely had some concerns, which are shared by a great many people. They are not to be minimised. I think getting them on the record and having a full airing and demonstrating that at this juncture, at least the Committee has confidence that that is not what India is all about, that is not what they are up to, was important.

Your India Caucus Republican co-chair, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and the former Republican co-chair Ed Royce, who were hedging their bets and had not spoken out in favour of the deal nor co-sponsored the original bill as you and several others had, finally came through and...

That is because of a lot of good work that the Indian-American community and the Indian-American press did on this. They didn't say they were against it, they just hadn't come aboard. But they did finally, and they voted appropriately, and they have to be applauded for it and appreciated for it.

Since you mentioned it, how do you rate the performance of the Indian-American community in coalescing over this one issue and mobilising all of their influence, resources?

The Indian-American community made the case to members of Congress who might have been reluctant. They helped in the educational process, and their participation was critical.

At the outset, Congressmen Henry Hyde and Tom Lantos admonished the Bush administration and slammed the White House and the State Department for ramming through this deal and trying to take away Congressional oversight in the process.

This deal now is a two-step process and still has to be voted on again after the review of the bilateral civilian nuclear cooperation agreement and the IAEA-India Safeguards Agreement...

Oh yes! It was done deliberately this way. It provides us with two votes. It gives us one vote now before seeing the details and the negotiated product. This is done because we feel it is important to show both the parties that (the US) Congress is serious in wanting to move this thing forward, but will not pass on its prerogatives, its institutional responsibilities, of oversight and checks and balances, and wants to go through the agreements once they are concluded.

This Congress has learnt a lesson about giving blank cheques. So there is an institutional importance here in our trifurcated democracy, if I can call it that as does India, and to maintain our institutional integrity, we have to be able to approve the documents and policy as it goes forward.

Finally, how would you sum up the importance of the House International Relations Committee vote?

This gave a tremendous impetus and a signal to the Senate as to where the House is on this issue, on a bipartisan basis. The Democrats are the champions on this issue. Kudos to the Republicans for coming on board, but we were pushing this from the beginning and chiding the administration to get on the stick and start moving this.

The president had to make a public statement, which he did, and that he had to get some high profile on this -- he has -- and they really got on the stick.

But it was really the Democrats -- the Democrats raised issues, the Democrats raised concerns, the Democrats wanted to debate them in public and if we could come to the end point of our product being what it is, then it is much stronger, because we have dealt with issues head-on and then lined up behind it.

Complete coverage: The Bush visit | Chats | The nuclear deal

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