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In India, Outcry Over U.S. Letter

The government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, second from left, flanked by Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi and Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, is again caught in a storm over a nuclear deal with the United States.
The government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, second from left, flanked by Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi and Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, is again caught in a storm over a nuclear deal with the United States. (Associated Press)

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By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 4, 2008

NEW DELHI, Sept. 3 -- A day after a secret letter from the U.S. State Department to Congress about the controversial nuclear energy deal with India was made public, Indian opposition figures cried foul, accusing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of willfully misleading the nation about restrictive aspects of the deal.

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The letter contradicts a commitment that Singh made to Parliament in August 2007, the critics said. He had told legislators that "the agreement does not in any way affect India's right to undertake future nuclear tests, if it is necessary."

Officials in Singh's government "have indulged in a farce which is unparalleled in our diplomatic and parliamentary history," the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party said in a statement. "It is now crystal clear that India will lose the right to nuclear tests forever as a result of this agreement."

In a nearly year-long campaign that threatened the stability of Singh's government, the opposition argued that national sovereignty and security were at stake. If the agreement was adopted, they said, India would be unable to conduct nuclear tests because they would trigger suspension of supplies of crucial nuclear fuel and technology.

The State Department letter said that the deal's assurances to supply India with nuclear fuel are not meant "to insulate India against the consequences of a nuclear explosive test." It went on to make clear that a cutoff would be immediate.

India's nuclear tests and its refusal to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty have led countries to restrict sales of nuclear technology and materials to it. The deal with the United States would clear the way for civilian nuclear cooperation, easing an electric power shortage. India would formally pledge certain safeguards but continue to remain outside the treaty.

Singh called a meeting of high-level officials at his residence Wednesday night to discuss the fallout of the letter, which was disclosed by The Washington Post and featured prominently Wednesday by Indian television and news agencies.

Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee told reporters that India will abide by a unilateral voluntary moratorium on nuclear tests that it announced in 1998 after conducting a series of underground tests. He said India is bound by a "123 agreement" with the United States, which does not explicitly curtail India's right to conduct tests.

The "government's attention has been drawn to news reports" about the State Department letter, said Navtej Sarna, a spokesman for the External Affairs Ministry. "We do not, as a matter of policy, comment on internal correspondence between different branches of other governments." Privately, a senior official said the letter was not binding and called it an internal matter of the United States.

The U.S. ambassador to New Delhi, David C. Mulford, said in a statement that the letter "contains no new conditions and there is no data in this letter which has not already been shared in an open and transparent way with members of the Congress and with the government of India."

Less than 24 hours before the accord is set to come up for possible approval at the 45-country Nuclear Suppliers Group in Vienna, Singh is once again caught in a storm over a decision on which he has staked his government's future.

Indian television channels ran programs all evening posing two questions: Did Singh lie to the nation? Or did President Bush keep the Indian government in the dark?

The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which opposed the deal and withdrew its support of Singh's coalition in July, said he should abandon the "anti-national" deal.

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