Indian Leader Rescues Nuclear Deal With U.S.

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 5, 2008

NEW DELHI, July 5 -- After months of political uncertainty, the Indian government appeared Friday to have saved a beleaguered civil nuclear-energy agreement with the United States. After a flurry of political meetings with allies and adversaries in the past week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gained the support of a regional political party that will not only back the deal but prevent his government from falling.

On Friday, Shakeel Ahmed, spokesman for the ruling Congress party, thanked its newfound ally, the socialist Samajwadi Party, "for supporting the nuclear deal in the national interest." Singh is to meet President Bush in Japan next week during a summit of the Group of Eight industrialized nations.

The deal had been attacked by Singh's coalition allies, a group of four communist parties, on grounds it would give the United States too much influence over India's nuclear programs and violate national sovereignty. They threatened to withdraw their support from Singh's government. Now Singh appears to have averted the risk of an early election this year amid inflation that hit 11.6 percent this week, a 13-year high.

The contentious deal seeks to end 30 years of nuclear isolation, give India access to nuclear fuel and technology, and address India's severe power shortage.

"We have been opposing the nuclear deal before, because we did not have any new details," said Mulayam Singh Yadav, leader of the Samajwadi Party, which has a strong base among lower-caste and Muslim Indians. "But now these new details have come."

Prime Minister Singh's office issued a statement this week trying to allay concerns about the deal. "The civil nuclear cooperation agreement did not and would not affect the autonomy of decision-making in regard to foreign affairs," the statement said. "There is nothing in the agreement which places an embargo on India's right to carry out a nuclear test if it thinks this is necessary in India's supreme national interest."

Political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan called Singh's single-minded campaign to promote the accord in the past year a "tectonic shift in Indo-U.S. relations."

"The deal is Manmohan Singh's quest for a legacy," he said. "It is not just about nuclear power but about how India will engage with the U.S. in the new century and shape the new world order."

Singh now faces talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group. The U.S. Congress will then vote on the deal.

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