- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2008

India’s ruling coalition faces severe internal disagreements over a far-reaching nuclear deal with the United States, and forcing a vote too soon could prove a “gesture in futility,” a top spokesman for the Indian government’s leading party said yesterday.

The U.S. government is pushing hard to clinch the deal before President Bush leaves office in January, but Abhishek Singhvi, spokesman for India’s Congress party, said on a visit to Washington that a premature vote could bring down the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

“We are even willing to stake the survival of the government on a matter of principle,” Mr. Singhvi said at the end of a three-day visit to Washington.

“But if you sacrifice the government and still do not get the deal, what you have is death without martyrdom,” he said. “It would be a gesture in futility.”

Communist parties that vote with the government are staunchly opposed to the nuclear deal, saying it infringes on India’s sovereignty. Mr. Singh has so far declined to press for a final vote for fear his government will collapse.

President Bush hailed the August 2007 accord as a major opportunity for U.S. exporters and an opening to build a much broader strategic and political alliance with one of the world’s rising powers.

At its core, the deal would give New Delhi access to now-forbidden U.S. nuclear fuel and technology in return for allowing international oversight and inspection of India’s civilian nuclear industry. India’s military nuclear programs would not be covered by the deal.

Many U.S. critics saw the deal as highly favorable to India, but the accord has been unexpectedly caught up in a fierce political debate in New Delhi.

In addition to approval by India’s Parliament, parts of the package still must be endorsed by the board of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and by the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Both houses of the U.S. Congress must then ratify the final language. Many on Capitol Hill say the completed agreement must reach Capitol Hill by June to have a realistic chance of action before Congress adjourns for the elections this fall.

Richard Boucher, assistant secretary of state for South Asia, said last month the ratification schedule had gone into “overtime,” though the department notes the U.S.-India pact can still be taken up by the new Congress elected in November.

But delay into 2009 and beyond would deprive Mr. Bush of a major foreign-policy victory and introduce new uncertainties over how the deal will be seen if there is a big shift in political power this fall.

All three presidential hopefuls — Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York — voted for the preliminary nuclear accord last year. But Mr. Obama co-sponsored one amendment, placing practical limits on the amount of nuclear fuel to be sold to India.

Mr. Singhvi said yesterday acknowledged there was concern in New Delhi about the prospects for the deal after Mr. Bush leaves office, especially if a Democrat captures the White House.

“Certainly, that is the perception in India,” he said.

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