India Clears Hurdle on Nuke Deal With US
July 23, 2008 - 6:44 AMIndian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has won a crucial vote of confidence in parliament, dodging the prospect of an early election and removing a significant hurdle in the path of a key nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States.
Watched live by more than 25 million television viewers across the country, Tuesday’s vote was a personal triumph for the prime minister and drew praise from the Bush administration.
Singh sought the confidence of lawmakers after communist allies withdrew support for his United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, protesting its attempts to move the nuclear deal forward.
The communists charge that the agreement will make India’s security and energy policies overly dependent on the U.S.
Supporters of the agreement say it will help to boost the civilian nuclear sector and help to ease energy shortages in the world’s second most-populous country.
The father of liberal reforms in India, Singh has been a prominent architect of the deal, which could end India’s nuclear isolation and supply it with much needed foreign nuclear fuel and technology.
Describing the outcome as “a convincing victory,” he said it signified that India was “prepared to take its rightful place in the comity of nations.”
While the vote means the nuclear deal will not suffer further hiccups on the Indian front, the government has stressed that the agreement will not restrict India’s right to future atomic tests – one of the concerns of domestic critics.
“Nothing in these agreements ... prevents us from further nuclear tests if warranted by our national security concerns,” Singh said. India is keen to wrap up the deal, which will allow it to buy nuclear technology and fuel despite not being a signatory to key non-proliferation agreements.
Indian officials are already in Europe to work on a “safeguards agreement” with the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an important prerequisite for the process to move ahead.
U.S. Ambassador to India David Mulford said the two nations would work closely to complete the ratification steps involving the IAEA, the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the U.S. Congress.
Once the IAEA step is complete, the NSG must agree to exemptions that will allow them to resume civilian nuclear trade with India, frozen since the country began developing nuclear weapons in the 1970s.
That done, congressional approval will be needed for the deal to become operative. Some U.S. officials have voiced concern that the political calendar may make this difficult to achieve before the end of the Bush administration.
Singh, too, is keen for an early conclusion since general elections are slated for early next year.
In a statement issued after the vote, the Washington-based U.S.-India Business Council welcomed the move and pledged to be “front and center” in the debate to ensure congressional ratification.
Tuesday’s vote came after an at times acrimonious two-day vote marred by allegations of bribery. Opposition lawmakers, waving wads of banknotes, accusing the UPA of offering cash for abstaining.
Amid ensuing pandemonium, the Speaker suspended proceedings for over an hour during which opposition members demanded Singh’s resignation.
Rival parties have in the past accused one another of “unethical conduct,” while several politicians have been caught on camera taking cash for alleged favors.
Vinod Mehta, editor of the weekly news magazine Outlook, said the incident was “another example of the plunging depths of politics whereby issues are not settled on the basis of ideologies but mud slinging.”
Although the episode appeared to have been stage-managed, Mehta said, it could affect the next general election.
Despite the accusations of bribery, television opinion polls show Singh retains overwhelming popular support, and stock markets registered gains after the government’s victory.
In a spinoff benefit, the coalition may now be able to push through economic reforms stalled in the past as a result of communist objections.
Finance Minister P. Chidambaram said the government would “work with other parties to carry forward the reforms process.”