U.S. Letter Puts India's Premier On Defensive Over Nuclear Deal

Indian Premier Manmohan Singh is under fire about a nuclear deal with the U.S. after a letter came to light in which the U.S. says the supply of nuclear fuel to India would stop if India conducted a nuclear test.
Indian Premier Manmohan Singh is under fire about a nuclear deal with the U.S. after a letter came to light in which the U.S. says the supply of nuclear fuel to India would stop if India conducted a nuclear test. (Associated Press)
By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 5, 2008

NEW DELHI, Sept. 4 -- As international negotiators met in Vienna to decide the fate of the contentious nuclear energy agreement between India and the United States, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government found itself facing a revived political battle at home over the deal because of the release of a secret letter in Washington.

The letter's disclosure caught India's government by surprise, a senior government official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. The official added that opponents of the deal probably made it public to try to weaken India in the final stages of efforts to win approval from the 45-country Nuclear Suppliers Group in Vienna.

But more than the Vienna deliberations, the Indian official said, Singh faces the bigger challenge of rescuing the government's plummeting popularity. The secret letter, written by the State Department to the U.S. Congress in January, states explicitly that the supply of nuclear fuel to India would stop if India were to conduct a nuclear test, contradicting assurances Singh gave to Indians in the past year.

"The bigger worry for us is how to handle the political situation here," said the official, who has worked to minimize the political damage of the deal. "We can counter the opposition's charges on a technical level. But what about the battle of perception? The opposition is telling the nation that we are liars and cheats."

The accord seeks to end more than three decades of nuclear isolation for India by facilitating its access to nuclear fuel and technology even as it remains outside the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In exchange for approving the deal, some members of the suppliers group asked for a clear assurance from India that it would refrain from nuclear testing and from selling enrichment and reprocessing technologies to other countries. Singh has said repeatedly that India will not give up its right to nuclear testing as a result of the deal.

A Washington Post article about the State Department letter led many opposition parties in India to demand Singh's resignation for alleged lying in Parliament.

"There is a gathering storm in India but Manmohan Singh's government is not prepared to take notice of it. This is an ostrich-like attitude," said Yashwant Sinha, a member of Parliament with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party at a packed news conference in New Delhi. His party wants India to renegotiate the deal with Washington.

Singh's colleagues held a series of meetings Thursday and tried to counter the charges all day. In various briefings to reporters, they read out multiple clauses of the "123 agreement" with the United States and sections of the State Department letter in an attempt to prove that Singh did not lie.

The senior government official told a handful of reporters that despite what the letter said, American negotiators had unofficially assured India that even if they are compelled to cut off nuclear supplies, they will work with "friendly countries" to continue supplying the materials to India. He added that the United States had also promised that before cutting off supplies after a test, it would carefully consider the circumstances and possible provocations that led to the test.

"We never needed anybody's permission when we conducted nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998. If the need arises and if it is in our national interest, we are ready to test not once, not twice but a hundred times," said Manish Tiwari, a spokesman for the ruling Congress party.

Some American officials said the letter and the ensuing uproar in India could affect negotiations in Vienna by strengthening skeptics there. A revised draft to approve the U.S.-India deal was circulated among members Thursday, and some officials feared that the members would ask for more time instead of acting immediately.

"With more delays, India is losing the crucial timeline for ratification in the U.S. Congress," said Sinha, the opposition leader. "The whole matter may spill over to the new American administration and a new government in India."

India's national election is scheduled for early next year. The nuclear deal is shaping up as a major issue of the campaign.

A leader in the Congress party said if the suppliers group blocks the deal, the government will blame the opposition parties for spoiling a great opportunity for India with their criticism. "But if the deal goes through, they will accuse our government of entering into a secret, backroom understanding with the U.S.," the leader said. "It's a tricky Catch-22 situation for us."

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