India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told U.S. President George W. Bush for the first time that the civilian nuclear energy agreement between the two countries may founder because of domestic opposition.
Singh “explained to President Bush that certain difficulties have arisen with respect to the operationalization of the India-U.S. civil nuclear cooperation agreement,'' the prime minister's office said in a statement last night.
Backtracking by Singh may stall his plan to buy reactors from General Electric Co. and Westinghouse Electric Co. to build 40,000 megawatts of nuclear capacity by 2020, equivalent to a third of current generation. Singh indicated this week that he's prepared to forego cooperation with the U.S. to prevent the collapse of his government.
“Reneging on the deal may mean India missing an opportunity to be in the big league'' and will “deal a blow'' to efforts to meet energy needs, N. Bhaskara Rao, chairman of the Centre for Media Studies, a policy research group, said in a telephone interview in New Delhi.
India's bid to boost growth, reduce employment and eradicate poverty may be undermined by the inability to make progress on the agreement, Rao said.
The U.S. embassy spokeswoman in New Delhi was unavailable for comment today. The U.S. has said it has no role to play in the discussions that the Indian government has internally.
“In terms of the timing and the discussions internally within the Indian political system, I'll leave that to them,'' Tom Casey, deputy spokesman at the U.S. State Department, said yesterday, according to the text of remarks posted on the Web site. “I'm not going to try and tell the Indians how to manage their own internal process on this.''
The prime minister indicated to Bush in the same telephone conversation last night that it was prepared to relax its stand on some aspects of the Doha round of trade talks.
“`India can by and large live with what is on the table and has concerns only on agriculture,'' Singh told Bush. “We will try to help in reaching a compromise.''
The nuclear energy agreement process began when Bush and Singh agreed in July 2005 that U.S. companies would sell nuclear technology, opening a market for equipment, fuel and reactors from Fairfield, Connecticut-based General Electric and Monroeville, Pennsylvania-based Westinghouse Electric.
The U.S. Congress in December passed legislation allowing the accord to proceed, reversing decades of U.S. policy that barred nuclear exports to India after the South Asian country tested an atomic bomb in 1974 without signing the Non- Proliferation Treaty.
The plan has to clear further measures before becoming operational. India has to reach a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, for international inspections. The Nuclear Suppliers Group, a 45-nation forum dedicated to limiting the spread of atomic weapons, has to also approve the accord. The agreement then needs to be ratified by the U.S. Congress.
“We certainly think this is again an arrangement that's positive for both countries and the broader international community and we'd like to see it done as soon as possible, but that's within the context of what each country has to do and has to accomplish,'' the State Department's Casey said yesterday.
Prime Minister Singh said last week that there were other issues that the government wanted to tackle in the remainder of its five-year term that ends May 2009.
Not `End of Life'
“The nuclear deal with the U.S. is a good deal but failure on the deal won't be the end of life,'' Singh said on Oct. 12, in his first public admission that he may prefer compromise with his Communist allies. “We are not a one-issue government.''
The prime minister's comments signaled he's prepared to delay the agreement, the key element of renewed ties between the U.S. and India. That may deny India access to the nuclear fuel and technology needed to upgrade reactors and step up electricity production in a country that faces a 13 percent shortage of power during peak hours.
Singh's Communist allies oppose the nuclear accord on the grounds that it will weaken the nation's ability to follow an independent foreign policy and compromise the country's own scientific capability.
The Communists want the agreement to be delayed until it's debated in parliament. They've asked the government not to discuss safeguards for power plants with the IAEA. The ruling coalition has formed a panel with the leftist parties to discuss the agreement.
Prime Minister Singh said on Oct. 12 that “elections are still far away.''