Clock is ticking on nuclear deal: Gates

February 27th, 2008 - 9:31 pm ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Manmohan Singh

New Delhi, Feb 27 (IANS) US Defence Secretary Robert Gates Wednesday reminded Indian leaders that “the clock is ticking” to conclude the nuclear agreement before the US Congress gets entangled in election-year politics. “The real key here is providing time for our Senate to ratify the final arrangements,” Gates told reporters here at the end of his two-day visit to India aimed at pushing forward arms sales and defence ties independent of the nuclear deal.

“The clock is ticking in terms of how much time is available to get all the different aspects of this agreement implemented,” he stressed while expressing an understanding of the domestic political impasse in India which has stalled the deal that aims at ending the country’s decades of nuclear isolation.

Saying that the US was “respectful of the domestic political issues here in India,” Gates added: “Let the government in India be the best judge of how to move this agreement forward.”

“With this being an election year, there is an open question about how long the Senate will be in session beyond this summer and September,” he added in the same breath.

In contrast to the three US senators who visited India recently and set a May-July deadline for India to wrap up the deal, Gates was, however, careful not to talk in terms of a deadline to avoid giving the impression that the US was trying to dictate to India.

During his two-day visit, the Pentagon chief called on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Defence Minister A.K. Anotony and told them about a strong bipartisan consensus in the US not only for the nuclear deal but for bolstering the India-US strategic and economic partnership.

In his discussions with Indian leaders, Gates expressed hope that India will do what is needed to conclude the deal so that the US can do its part and complete the agreement, which will pave the way for the resumption of global civil nuclear commerce with India after a gap of three decades.

Manmohan Singh Tuesday told Gates that his government was hopeful of completing the nuclear deal but admitted to his government’s dilemma - an oblique reference to stiff opposition to the deal by the Left parties, official sources said.

Gates also met senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K. Advani Wednesday in a bid to garner support of India’s chief opposition party for the deal. The BJP leader, however, gently reiterated the party’s opposition to some aspects of the deal, which he said compromise on India’s sovereignty and nuclear deterrence.

The Left allies of the government virtually hold the veto over the nuclear deal as it is only after they approve India’s safeguards pact with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is being currently negotiated in Vienna, the government can go ahead with the deal.

The 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group has to then decide on changing its guidelines to allow the resumption of global nuclear commerce with India. Finally, the 123 India-US nuclear agreement has to be ratified by an up and down vote by both houses of the US Congress before the deal becomes operational.

Gates, however, stressed that India and the US can continue to expand their military ties regardless of the outcome of the nuclear deal.

“We’re building for the long term,” he said, stressing that the US was “not looking for quick results or big leaps forward, but rather a steady expansion of this relationship.”

Gates discussed with Indian leaders the possibility of joint cooperation on a missile defence system. Discussions in this area were at a “very early stage,” he said.

Gates also made a pitch for bids by the two American companies, Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., that are competing for a lucrative $10 billion contract to supply 126 multipurpose fighter jets to India.

“I indicated that we are obviously interested and believe that we are competitive in the selection of the new fighter,” Gates said.

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