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When is the N-deal a deal?
Robinder Sachdev
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November 15, 2006

As the fate of civil nuclear cooperation between the US and India makes it way through the American legislative processes, it is critical for lobbyists and supporters, analysts, and general public to keep in mind several points before we conclude that a civil nuclear 'deal' has been made between the two countries.

The first thing to keep in mind is that the content and conditions of any final bill which is passed by both houses of US Congress, and then signed into law by President George W Bush [Images], will then need to be signed off by the Indian government in order to consummate a 'deal'. It is only then that the governmental interlocutors and lobbyists can take a well earned vacation, and the media can declare that we do have a deal. Any champagne popping in the interim has to wait.

However, there may be a penultimate stage wherein it could still be said that we do have a 'deal'. That will be the stage when the Senate version of the bill (yet to be passed, or may be passed by the time this article appears) is reconciled with the House version of the bill (already passed), and if the reconciled final version of the bill does not have any apparent irritants which may roil the support for the deal in India. This is the stage at which the outcome is most important for civil nuclear cooperation between the US and India.

Laser like focus and attention should be on nature of conditions attached to the finalised bill which emerges from the US Congress. Attached conditions to the finalised bill are critical for the fate of the bill to either morph into a deal or flounder as a wannabe deal.

A final nuclear cooperation bill from the US Congress will be subject to intense scrutiny in India and measured against the July 18, 2005 framework. Government interlocutors in both countries have been working overtime and incessantly to bridge the gaps between what the US Congress could finally demand, and what Prime Minster Manmohan Singh [Images] committed in his speech to the Indian Parliament on August 17, 2006. 

As of last analysis, there were 19 potential amendments that have been touted by lawmakers in the US Senate, and there are nine clear cut objections voiced by Indian parliamentarians. If amongst the amendments incorporated in the Senate, or finalised version of the, bill there are any that fundamentally collide with Indian objections, then the chances of a 'deal' are virtually nil. We may have a bill, but we won't have a deal.

There are two broad aspects -- ideology and deal-making -- that will make or mar the fate of the nuclear bill in the US Congress. The ideological arguments and opposition have to be countered by ideology and rational arguments, plus the larger picture of US-India relations -- after all the proposed agreement is about building mature trust between the two democracies as much as it is about energy. The deal making, on the other hand is about give-and-take on Capitol Hill between the US administration and lawmakers, and between lawmakers of different groupings.

There is support in both countries and amongst lawmakers for a 'deal', yet the devil lies in the details -- it may wear Prada, but it needs both ideology and deal-making to succeed in creating a win-win for all parties concerned. Lobbyists for the government of India, for corporate interests, and those representing the grassroots have been using their arsenals of ideology, political grassroots pressure, personal and institutional relationships, and campaign finance to get sufficient face time with the lawmakers and convince them of the merits of a 'deal' with India.

Lobbying for the bill has always been two pronged -- one, ensuring that the bill comes up for discussions in the legislative chambers at the earliest (foreign relations committees of both houses, then the full House of Representatives, and now in the full Senate); and two, countering the arguments in favour of 'deal-breaker' clauses attached to the bill in its various incarnations.

At each stage when the bill has come for discussions in the committees or the full chamber, and passed, a sense of victory has permeated the proponents of a 'deal'. Savouring limited victory is good -- especially when it keeps the passion and momentum of the proponents in high gear for the next battle. However, declaring victory is immature till the finalised bill has been drafted and the nine Indian versus 19 American concerns vetted in the language of the bill.

And this brings us to the last key point of this article -- timing. Haste and chaos are at times useful in befuddling the adversary -- the urgency imposed due to the need to pass the final bill within the lame duck session of the Senate may help in scuttling arguments of the opponents, however, on the other hand, a bill that is passed with 'deal-breakers', due to the pressures of time, may be just that -- a deal-breaker.

The energies being spent in battling the pressures of time should not take away from the energies required to mitigate and eliminate the contentious clauses from being attached to the bill. Relentless effort and acute attention to detail are required to make a success of this emerging bill -- and to then call it a deal.

In the larger picture of things the fate of the bill in the lame duck session does not matter for the lobbyists and friends of deeper, wider, and mature relations between the US and India -- they have to work relentlessly to convert the underlying strategic intent of this bill into a win-win relationship between the US and India. A civil nuclear deal between the two countries would be a great start.

Robinder Sachdev is director, India operations, of the Washington-based US-India Political Action Committee.

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