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Exclusive: US will sign deal, even with minority government

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC | July 21, 2008 11:03 IST

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While scrupulously avoiding any comment on the trust vote and, on whether Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] will prevail or not to avoid any perception of US interference in India's internal affairs, the Bush administration has said it intends to move forward with the United States-India civilian nuclear agreement with whatever government is in charge in New Delhi -- even with a minority government.

In an exclusive interview with, Richard Boucher, the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, who is the Bush administration's point man for the subcontinent and who has taken charge of pushing the deal in the US Congress, said, "We are going to work with the Indians, we are going to work with the Congress and we are going to take this as far as we can go."

"We are very excited by the prospect, we'll see what happens in the confidence vote, but however far the Indians could go, we are going to try to take it that far or further. So, that's what we are going to do," he said.

Obviously cognisant that unlike in the US where Congressional approval is necessary for the enactment of such an agreement, Indian governments don't need such parliamentary approval even if it is a minority government, Boucher said that "internally within India, that's a question for your (India's) law, and your (India's) policy and your (India's) political community."

But he pointed out that "in terms of the United States and India, we deal with the legally constituted government of India -- whoever is running that government at the time, that's who we sign agreements with. So, that's not a problem for us."

"I don't have them off the top of my head, but I mean, minority governments are common around the world and you can't say, 'Oh, well, we are going to stop dealing with you till the next election or until some new coalition or something. That's not for us to say."

Boucher argued that "if they have a legitimate government -- people who are empowered to run the government -- that's who we'll deal with," and reiterated, "That's not a problem for us."

When reminded that the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party that is strongly opposed to the deal has argued that without parliamentary approval the government would not have the moral authority or moral fibre to conclude such a deal, Boucher maintained that "you know, on our side, there is no legal problem or moral problem. On their side there may not be a legal question, but there's always political questions and they're going to have to figure that one out themselves."

"(But) As long as they are a duly constituted government, we are happy to deal with them," he said.

Asked if the prime minister's decision to go through the deal despite the Left Front's withdrawal and come what may was a little too late, Boucher replied, "I guess what I'll say is it's never too late. This is not a deal between a government and another government. It's a deal between the United States and India -- it's good for India, it's good for the United States."

He also recalled that "this goes way beyond any particular administrations, and, you can trace this back to administrations on both sides of different political parties."

Acknowledging the constraints of the Congressional calendar, Boucher said "as we move through, if we can move it to the point where the president can certify all the things that he has to certify, take the package and send it to Congress, we'll do that. If the Congress is in a position to act on it, I am sure they'll try to do that. So, I think, everybody wants to take it as far as we can. I can't promise what the US Congress will do, but if we take it to some point and times expires on this Congress, then the new Congress will have to take it up -- that's all you can say. So, that's our pledge."

But he cautioned that Congress wasn't the only hurdle and pointed out that "we've got to jump a lot of hurdles before we get to the Congress," first in terms of the approval of the India safeguards agreement by the International Atomic Energy Agency's board of governors and then an endorsement by consensus of the deal by the Nuclear Suppliers Group."

"One of the things we have to recognise on this timeline we are on now is, we are asking each of these organizations sort of not to follow the usual procedures and patterns. We are asking to accelerate their consideration, to accelerate the whole process. To waiver rules sometimes -- go ahead with things out of the normal cycle and so, there are more things that countries could raise but we'll just have to deal with them," he said.

Thus, he predicted that "in the end, it won't just be a technical decision in the Nuclear Suppliers (Group), it will be a political decision for each of these countries to say, 'Do I want to bring India into the international nonproliferation efforts, do I want my country to have a relationship with India's future, and, I think the answers are going to be yes."

Describing the concerted effort launched by the Bush administration to expeditiously move on all fronts in order to try and consummate the deal before the end of its term in office and this Congress, Boucher said, "We are already heavily engaged -- we've got designated teams working on this stuff."

"We are going to... instead of doing one thing after another after another, which is the way we would normally do this, we've broken this out and said, OK, we can move three or four channels in parallel to work on the IAEA decision, the Nuclear Suppliers (Group) decisions, the internal discussions, the certifications, the drafting. We can move all this at the same time with teams," he said.

Thus, Boucher added, "We've really set ourselves up to do this in as fast as possible but there's an enormous amount to be done."

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