While scrupulously eschewing acknowledging publicly that the US-India civilian nuclear deal that lies comatose due to domestic politics in India is all but dead, senior Administration officials have privately said, "The clock has virtually run out," and it's "highly unlikely" that the US Congress will be able to act on it now, thus leaving President Bush sans one major positive foreign policy legacy he was so much hoping for.
Congressional sources echoed similar pessimism and told rediff.com that even if the Manmohan Singh government decides to go ahead despite the vehement opposition of its Leftist coalition partners, completes the safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency and sends the deal back to the US in the next few weeks
, it still doesn't give the administration sufficient time to convince the Nuclear Suppliers Group to endorse the agreement and then prevail on the US Congress to quickly approve it before it adjourns.
Two senior sources who are staffers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee told rediff.com that even though it is going to be an up or down vote
, the problem is getting it scheduled on the Congressional calendar for action, considering all of the other stuff that has to be completed -- and that is taking for granted that there is indeed overwhelming support to get it slotted as there was for the earlier enabling legislation that was adopted in 2006.
They said even that is in doubt, because there are several senior lawmakers, including the likes of Foreign Affairs Committee Congressman Howard Berman and the Ranking Republican on the panel, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
, who still had questions they believed had not been answered completely by the administration regarding the 123 Agreement that "could put a hold on the agreement being scheduled for a vote until their questions are answered to their satisfaction."
"And, mind you, all this is the best case scenario in the event that the Indians get their act together and complete all that has to be done at their end and get it back over here in the next couple of weeks and the administration simultaneously gets the support of the NSG
," one source
At the State Department Wednesday, Gonzalo Galegos, director of press relations who conducted the daily briefing, asked about reports that had begun to appear that the deal was dead and the administration had resigned itself to this, said, "This administration has been firm in its support for the deal. It continues to be so."
"Right now, we are at a situation where this is with the Indian government and literally with the Indian people
. This is a matter for them to decide and then follow through with," he said.
Galegos pointed out that "we've consistently stated that we stand behind this, that we continue to support it, and that we would like to move apace in terms of proceeding with it."
"However," he acknowledged, "there is, you know, the bottom line is, there's a reality of the Congressional calendar that has to be dealt with. We do hope that we can continue and possibly conclude this in the near future."
When pressed if the administration is hopeful it can be completed in its waning days and before the end of the Bush term, Galegos said, "I would be the last one -- if my boss and my boss's boss are loathe to commit to dates, I'm -- I fear it even more than they do."Ashley J Tellis
, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who was intimately involved in the negotiation of the deal -- assisting the chief US interlocutor, then under secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns -- said that while technically the deal may not be dead, nuclear cooperation could not begin with India before the US Congress approves the 123 Agreement.
In an interview with rediff.com, Tellis, who is a strategic affairs adviser to Senator John McCain
[Images], the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, asked if the current Congress would be able to complete approval of the deal before the end of the Bush term, said, "I don't think anyone knows the answer to that question at this point."
"Obviously, it would depend greatly on how quickly the government of India were to move in securing IAEA Board approval of the 123 Agreement
," he said. "But, I would caution against presuming to know the mind of Congress or prematurely drawing any conclusions with respect to how and when it would exercise its right to review and approve the agreement
Tellis argued that when pundits and commentators in Washington and New Delhi declare that the 'deal is dead,' they are being "quite presumptuous
" in terms of "implying that they know either Congress' eventual judgment about the 123 or how it will manage the review and approval process
However, he acknowledged, "I would be the first to admit that even if the Indian government were suddenly to turn around and get IAEA approval of the 123 today, it would be an uphill battle to complete everything during the current Congressional term.
But he argued that this "presumes that the US Congress is unaware of the significance of this initiative and its importance for the bilateral relationship," and added, "In fact, everything the Congress has done so far demonstrates exactly the opposition -- it has moved quickly and responsibly precisely because it appreciates the stakes
"My hopefulness may therefore border on optimism, but it is not unfounded," he said.
But Tellis warned against the contention by some Indian commentators who have argued that there is nothing to lose if India waits
and concludes the deal after President Bush leaves office because the integral elements of the agreement have already been concluded, particularly the amending of US law to permit the resumption of civilian nuclear cooperation with India -- an exclusive exemption -- as contained in the enabling legislation known as the Hyde Act.
He said that besides the "personal stakes
" of President Bush and Dr Singh in this agreement "because it is uniquely their own
," there was a sense of momentum right now. "The IAEA, the US Congress and the NSG are prepared to act."
Tellis said, "It is simply impossible to foresee what the political circumstances both domestically and internationally
may be a year or so from now and whether the current favourable circumstances will continue to hold indefinitely."
He also said that a change in administration, both in the US and India, "will mean new people coming on board," and consequently "this loss of institutional memory will increase the burdens of getting this done cleanly and expeditiously."
Tellis added, "A Democratic administration in the United States -- something which must be reckoned a possibility come this November, could choose to renegotiate or alter the current deal. That would likely not find favor in India and could in fact kill it, because the current deal is truly the best agreement that both sides could come up with
Thus, he said, "Excuses for delay are dangerous and actually counterproductive."
Tellis asserted, "Senator McCain has wholeheartedly endorsed the deal," and that "if elected he will endeavor to complete it, if it is still hanging out there by the time he assumes office."
But he reiterated that "there is no telling whether the environment in which a President McCain finds himself will be favourable to easy consummation. I don't think the problem will be a Democratic Congress per se -- most Democrats in Congress supported the Hyde Act by a large margin. My biggest fear is that the currently favorable political environment may disappear for a variety of reasons, none related to India
," and thus the deal could "become a victim to extraneous circumstances
Meanwhile, the Indian-American community that mobilised like it had never before in its history to pull out all the stops and lobby to approve the enabling legislation, had also all but thrown in the towel.Swadesh Chatterjee, coordinator of the US-India Friendship Council,
an umbrella organisation incorporating all of the Indian-American community, political and professional organisation, that was formed in 2005 solely to push through the deal, acknowledged that while personally he had not thrown in the towel, the majority in the community had.
He said "there was so much disappointment in the community that it will be extremely difficult to mobilise again like we did the first time around and bring the kind of critical mass we did to push it through Congress
Chatterjee said, "It is very unfortunate that politics in India has taken over this deal and it has nothing to do with the country's interests. They are not looking at what is good for India. They are only looking at what is good for their party. This is so very, very sad
He said, "Members of the community are feeling so deflated and so let down after all that they did -- spending their own time, money, putting their careers and families on hold for months on end
-- and now have no incentive to do that again, particularly when the politicians over there don't even seem to have a fraction of the commitment and dedication we have for this deal."
"It seems like Dr Singh is a lone voice for this deal and many in the Congress Party are also not for it
," Chatterjee added.
Sources said that the US business lobby
, under the aegis of the US-India Business Council, which had also been in the forefront of pushing for the deal, also felt badly let down and was on the verge of discontinuing the services of top notch Washington lobbying firms like Patton Boggs that it had hired to work for the consummation of the accord in Congress.
When External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee visited Washington a little over two months ago, Ron Somers, president of the USIBC
, reflecting the angst of the American business and industry, asked him bluntly at a meeting at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace -- that was closed to the media
-- whether US business should "fold our tent and go home
," who which Mukherjee implored, "please keep up the momentum
But many business leaders and the members of the community believed that Mukherjee's exhortations rang hollow and in a tangible manifestation of the deal being in the doldrums, former ambassador to India Robert Blackwill, who was anointed president of another leading lobbying firm in Washington -- Barbour Griffiths and Rogers
-- purely on the strength of securing the government of India lobbying contract to help bring the deal to fruition, "folded his tent," and left the firm for academia in California