All the stakeholders must realise there is still some way to go before a civil nuclear "deal" is made between the two countries.

Robinder Sachdev

Don't relent, and keep working it is only a Bill so far. Language is a funny thing. And on top of it the limited space in the electronic or print media often necessitates concise phrases to convey the maximum in the shortest possible time or space. And then the short-hand takes on a life of its own and both the masses and the media come to believe that this is the real thing.

As the fate of civil nuclear cooperation between the US and India makes its way through the American legislative processes, it is critical for the lobbyists and supporters, analysts, and general public to keep in mind several points before concluding that a civil nuclear "deal" has been made between the two countries.

Content and condition

The first thing to keep in mind is that the content and conditions of any final Bill, which is passed by both Houses of the US Congress, and then signed into law by the President, will need to be signed by the Government in New Delhi. It is only then that the governmental interlocutors and lobbyists can take a well-earned vacation, and the media can declare that one does have a deal. Any champagne popping has to wait till then.

However, there may be a penultimate stage wherein it could still be said that one does have a "deal". That will be when the Senate version of the Bill is reconciled with the House version (already passed), and if the reconciled final version does not have any apparent irritants, which may roil the support for the deal in India. This is the stage at which the outcome is the most important for civil nuclear cooperation between the US and India.

Laser-sharp focus

Laser-like focus and attention should be on nature of conditions attached to the finalised Bill, which emerges from the US Congress. Such conditions are critical for the fate of the Bill to either morph into a deal or flounder as a wannabe.

A final nuclear cooperation Bill from the US Congress will be subject to intense scrutiny in India and measured against the July 18, 2005 framework. Government interlocutors in both countries have been working over time to bridge the gaps between what the US Congress could finally demand, and what the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, committed in his speech to Parliament on August 17,2006.

As of last analyses, there were 19 potential amendments touted by lawmakers in the US Senate and nine objections voiced by Indian parliamentarians. If amongst the amendments incorporated in the Senate, or the finalised version of the Bill, there are any that fundamentally collide with Indian objections, then the chances of a "deal" are virtually nil. India may have a Bill, but not a deal.

There are two broad aspects - ideology and deal-making - that will decide the fate of the nuclear Bill in the US Congress. The ideological arguments and opposition have to be countered by ideology and rational arguments, plus the larger picture of US-India relations. The deal-making, on the other hand is about give-and-take on Capitol Hill between the US administration and lawmakers and among lawmakers of different groupings.

There is support in both countries and amongst lawmakers for a "deal", yet the devil lies in the detail; it may wear Prada, but it needs both ideology and deal-making to succeed in creating a win-win situation for all parties concerned. Lobbyists for the Indian Government, for corporate interests, and those representing the grassroots have been using their arsenals of ideology, political grassroots pressure, and campaign finance to get sufficient time with the American lawmakers and convince them of the merits of a "deal" with India.

Two-pronged lobbying

Lobbying for the Bill has always been two-pronged - one, ensuring that the Bill comes up for discussions in the legislative chambers at the earliest (Foreign Relations Committees of both Houses, then the full House of Representatives, and now in the full Senate); and two, countering the arguments in favour of "deal-breaker" clauses attached to the Bill in its various incarnations.

At each stage the Bill has come for discussions in the committees or the full chamber, and passed, a sense of victory has permeated the proponents of a "deal". Savouring limited victory is good - especially when it keeps the passion and momentum of the proponents in high gear for the next battle. However, declaring victory is immature till the finalised Bill has been drafted and the nine Indian versus 19 American concerns are addressed. Another key point is the timing. Haste and chaos are at times useful in befuddling the adversary - the urgency imposed due to the need to pass the final Bill in the lame duck session of the Senate may help scuttle arguments of the opponents, though a Bill that is passed with "deal-breakers", due to the pressures of time, may be just that - a deal-breaker.

The energies being spent in battling the pressures of time should not take away from the energies required to mitigate and eliminate the contentious clauses from being attached to the Bill. In the larger picture, the fate of the Bill in the lame duck session does not matter for the lobbyists and friends of deeper, wider, and mature relations between the US and India - they have to work relentlessly to convert the underlying strategic intent of this Bill into a win-win deal between the US and India.

(The author is a founding member and director of the US India Political Action Committee, Washington, DC, and the founding CIO of Imagindia Institute, New Delhi.)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated November 22, 2006)
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