N-deal to dominate Mukherjee’s US visit

March 23rd, 2008 - 9:02 pm ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Manmohan Singh
By Arun Kumar
Washington, March 23 (IANS) External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee is likely to meet President George W. Bush Monday, the stalled India-US civil nuclear deal topping the agenda of his US visit. Mukherjee, who arrives here Sunday afternoon with Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon and Joint Secretary (Americas) Gaitri Kumar, begins the day with a formal round of talks at the State Department.

Mukherjee, making his first visit to Washington as foreign minister, is also scheduled to meet President Bush’s National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley Monday afternoon. A meeting with Bush himself is also on the cards.

He is likely to discuss with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her team the next steps that may be taken following finalisation of the text of an India-specific safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

As Mukherjee made it clear before leaving for Washington, “some text has been reached, which only needs to be initialled”. However, it cannot be initialled unless the Indian government’s Left allies give the go ahead.

Once India signs the agreement with IAEA, Washington will push India’s case for a change in the rules of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) that controls global nuclear commerce. The implementing 123 agreement finalised last July will then go to the US Congress for its final approval in an “up or down” vote.

The visit takes place within days of Mukherjee telling parliament that India can neither “mend” nor “end” the deal. It is also the first visit at the foreign minister-level since the one undertaken by Natwar Singh in April 2005.

Besides the nuclear deal, Mukherjee’s talks with Condoleezza Rice as also those with other US officials, including the ones at the White House, are expected to cover the entire spectrum of global, regional and bilateral issues that includes cooperation in defence and high technology.

After the meeting at the State Department, the minister is scheduled to holds talks at a closed-door session with senior analysts and think tank specialists at the Carnegie Endowment, an event closed to the media.

Bush administration would like to know from Mukherjee the Indian government’s thinking on the critical nuclear deal issue, given his important role on the nuclear initiative.

Mukherjee in turn will get to know first hand from the administration the important timelines left to be resolved if the nuclear deal is to get through the US Congress before the end of its term in December.

The Bush administration has been pressing India to go through the remaining steps at the earliest so that the deal, which has been touted as a major foreign policy achievement for Bush, may be operationalised before Bush leaves the White House in January 2009.

Mukherjee is likely to brief the American leaders in detail about the political compulsions facing the Manmohan Singh government back home and how it could take the nuclear deal forward only after evolving a consensus on the issue.

Before Mukherjee left home, US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, visiting India, assured Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about the Democratic Party’s broad support for the deal. But like other US officials, she stressed the need for India to conclude the next steps at the earliest.

Pelosi set no deadline for India to conclude the deal, but said it would help if New Delhi concludes the next steps by May-June so that the deal can be ratified by an up and down vote by July before it gets into the election mode.

Mukherjee, who too met Pelosi, is likely to meet influential Democrats in Washington and try to get some assurance from them that the deal’s future would be secure even under a Democratic dispensation if it cannot be concluded before Bush’s departure.

Like other Democratic leaders such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Joseph Biden and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, Pelosi too assured Indian leaders that the party supported the deal and reiterated the Democrats’ belief in pursuing a vigorous strategic partnership with India.

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