U.S. nuclear pact fuels political rift in India

The Baltimore Sun

NEW DELHI -- A landmark India-U.S. nuclear power deal, considered the key emblem of deepening strategic ties between the two nations, might be headed for the scrap heap because of opposition objections, Indian analysts said yesterday.

The contentious deal, backed by the Bush administration and Congress, would give India access to U.S. technology and fuel for nuclear power plants without clearly restricting its right to reprocess the spent fuel into weapons-grade material or carry out nuclear weapons tests.

Key coalition partners of India's ruling party have long opposed the deal on the grounds that it could violate the nation's sovereignty and limit its ability to respond to its nuclear rival and neighbor, Pakistan. This week, they insisted that they would withdraw from India's ruling coalition over the issue, forcing early national elections, unless the deal is dropped.

Sonia Gandhi, the head of India's ruling party, dismissed the pact's critics as "enemies of progress and development." She said this week that her party is ready to face new elections and is confident it could push the nuclear accord through on its own.

But nuclear and political experts in New Delhi said yesterday that they believe the deal might be doomed to failure as elections approach in both countries and opponents stiffen resistance.

While India needs new sources of power, said Bharat Karnad, a nuclear expert with the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, nuclear energy, under most realistic predictions, would provide only 5 percent to 6 percent of the country's power needs within seven years, up from 2.2 percent today, if the deal is passed.

But agreeing to the accord potentially "impinges on national security, and that's why many people oppose it," Karnad said.

What India gains under the pact in terms of power generation "is not a big deal," he said, and the agreement "doesn't make sense, given what India has to give up."

This month, members of the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a nonbinding resolution questioning the wisdom of the nuclear deal, given India's refusal to sign the nonproliferation treaty aimed at curbing the spread and use of nuclear weapons.

Under the pact, India would gain access to U.S. nuclear fuel and technology for an expanded nuclear energy program aimed at helping the developing country with its growing power needs.

The deal would also generally break the ice between the two countries on greater nuclear cooperation, potentially opening the way for the sale of advanced U.S. aircraft and space technology, said D. Raghunandan, a strategic analyst with the Center for Technology and Development in New Delhi.

India's ruling party agreed this week to wait until mid-October to allow its congressional allies to study the deal before trying to meet with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which must sign off on the pact along with the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a 45-nation body that oversees trade in nuclear fuel and technology.

The deal would have to be approved again by the U.S. Congress, something India is eager to have happen before U.S. elections next year.

Laurie Goering writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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