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50:50 chance on N-deal, US politician tells Deora

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC | September 12, 2008 13:10 IST

US Congressman Jim McDermott, the Democratic co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans said his longtime friend, Indian Petroleum minister Murli Deora had called him on Thursday morning to ask him about the chances of the US-India nuclear deal being approved before the Congress adjourns on September 26 and he had told him, "I don't know what's going to happen."

Mcdermott told Deora he felt the deal had "a 50-50 chance."

McDermott holds the record for the most visits to India--more than 20 since the 1980s, when he began visiting the red light districts of Mumbai and Kolkata to warn against an impending HIV/AIDS pandemic--said, "The floor of the Congress is being tied up with political maneuvering having to do with the election on the 4th of November.So, unfortunately, when you bring an issue like this--a big issue, an important issue--and stick it right into the middle of a political conflagration if you will, it's sometimes hard to get things through in that kind of atmosphere."

McDermott had voted against the enabling legislation in 2006--the Hyde Act--had told in an interview at the time that he did so not because of anything he had against India but because President Bush had not called him and asked for his support, predicted that the approval of the agreement sent to Congress Wednesday night by Bush may have "to be dealt with in a lame duck session or beyond that."

"But what I know it's with a great deal of pleasure that we see this kind of agreement worked out. Now, we have to look at it and see, is it good for us, is it good for India, and if it is, I think the votes will be there to pass it," McDermott said, speaking at a conference organized by the US-India Business Alliance and the Congressional Task Force on US-India Trade on Capitol Hill.

However, McDermott, who represents Washington state, reiterated, "I don't think it is something that anybody can tell you at this moment, is going to pass at any particular time. I don't know when it is going to happen. But again, I would emphasize, failure to do it instantly, does not mean disrespect to Indians or anything of that quality at all. It is that our political process demands that we operate in our political process as we respect the Indian political process."

Earlier, McDermott had said  "there isn't anybody here who really knows what's going to happen, and I think it is important to say at the outset that if it doesn't pass in the short-term future, that is not a reflection of America's attitudes toward India. The strong relationship between our countries is going to be there absolutely�with or without this formal agreement. It's not the be-all and the end-all of the world."

McDermott said, "It should be understood that we are in the middle of a presidential election. I've watched enough elections in India to know that when an election comes up, everything stops, nothing gets done in Parliament, the Lok Sabha or anything else while people figure out exactly who's going to be the next government and who's going to be the prime minister and the rest.The same is true in the United States."

But while McDermott was casting doubts about the agreement's approval before Congress adjourns, the Republican co-chair of the India Caucus, Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina, sent out a letter to all of the members of the House of Representatives calling on them to approve the agreement, declaring that "we should recognize both the historic nature of this deal and the emerging strategic importance of India in global affairs."

Wilson, in his missive wrote, "The US and India were estranged for too long during the Cold War. With the opening of India's economy to the West and a vibrant Indian American community reshaping America's image in India, our relationship has dramatically changed," and he went on to describe everything from US business investment in India, joint military exercises and Indian students filling American colleges and universities.

"Americans have embraced Indian food, yoga, and South Asian culture. Indians watch American television, listen to our music and watch our movies. Polls consistently show Indians with very high favorable views of America and vice versa. Our two countries have grown closer based on shared values of democracy, freedom, religious pluralism, and belief in free markets."

Wilson, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, argued that "India has an excellent record on nonproliferation and its nuclear weapons program is solely designed as a deterrent, based on India's own legitimate security assessments."

He said, "Although some in the nonproliferation community have raised objections to this agreement, every single contention they make can be refuted. Further, they blur the distinction between the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the possession of them. To them, India's possession of nuclear weapons makes it just as guilty as Iran, which is trying to acquire such weapons to threaten its neighbors and destabilize the Middle East."

Wilson impressed upon his colleagues that "this agreement takes a realistic assessment of India's nuclear weapons program and enhances international nonproliferation efforts by working with the IAEA and a country we can trust."

"India has had four nuclear reactors under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards for decades, and 14 of their 22 reactors will be under permanent safeguards under this agreement. This agreement will create American jobs, burn less fossil fuels, grow our economies, enhance mutual trust, and greatly develop our strategic relationship with India. I urge your support of this historic agreement," Wilson said.

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