Indian Minister Manmohan Singh has bet the ranch on a nuclear cooperation pact with the U.S., but his chances of getting Congressional approval may be slim and none.
While he has saved his government from a parliamentary election, he still has to face several daunting hurdles to obtain access to reliable supplies of uranium for his civilian and military nuclear reactors. Half of India's civilian nuclear fleet is shut down because countries like Australia, a major supplier, will not sell uranium to India because it has not signed the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.
Three challenges no waiting
Three key challenges include a short-attention span in the U.S. Congress, the need for unanimous approval of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and review of India's commitments to inspections of its reactors by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Critics of the deal have said, in blunt terms, that India wants to have it both ways. It wants access to U.S. nuclear technology, but to stifle critics at home it is planning to put some nuclear reactors off limits to inspections and asserts its right to conduct future underground nuclear tests. Both actions are clear deal breakers and will result in rejection of the 1-2-3 Agreement by Congress. Even if India wasn't appearing to be dealing cards from the bottom of the deck, it would still face obstacles in the U.S of a more practical political nature.
In the U.S. Congress is working a shorter than usual legislative calendar in order to get all of the House and a third of the Senate home in time to campaign for re-election. It is widely assumed that none of the 13 appropriation bills Congress is supposed to pass by September will be done, and that the federal government will be on a continuing resolution at least until a lame duck Congress returns after Thanksgiving. How a contentious nuclear deal with India will find a place on the legislative calendar in this environment is anyone's guess. Even more challenging will be the uncertain prospects the deal would face with a new President and Congress following the elections.
Singh finds a common fate with Merkel
Despite all these downsides to the deal, Singh went to the G8 meeting in Japan radiating confidence that his nation will soon be able to buy nuclear fuel and technology on the global market. While he was there he spent some time talking with German's Andrea Merkel who has her own nuclear story to tell. Interestingly, Ms. Merkel wants to save her nuclear power plants from the clutches of green groups, and seems frustrated at every turn in her attempts to do so. Mr. Singh wants to build his nuclear energy infrastructure, and also seems to be standing in shifting sands. Both want nuclear energy, and, paradoxically, for both it appears this objective is beyond their grasp. Both may lose their position and political power in their quest for nuclear energy.
Seeking a place in history and at the table
Still, the 1-2-3 agreement a big deal to India and some observers say that Singh's goal line push is intended to show critics at home he's capable of being a high profile actor on the world stage. President Bush is also seeking some positive place in history he ends his second term with public approval ratings at historical lows.
The 1-2-3 agreement has another set of supporters in the U.S. These are multi-national corporations who see huge opportunities for 'offset deals' involving trade in non-nuclear technologies, including conventional defense systems, in return for India's trade procurement of U.S. nuclear technologies. These firms will be lobbying Congress to pass the measure. Items of interest include aircraft and electronics.
Finally, The Bush Administration's insistence on a special case for India will likely undermine U.S. influence with other nations with regard to support for the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. Overall, it is a messy situation, and U.S. long-term interests may be preserved by the fact that Congress won't see the 1-2-3 deal as being of any interest to voters in their districts. It will be convenient for Congress to shove the decision to approve it or not into the future. With the election settled, a new Congress and President in the White House will be able to take a fresh look at what Singh is selling. Starting over with a clean slate and new governments in both places might be the best thing that every happened to U.S. cooperation with India on nuclear energy.