‘Secret Bush letter’ on eve of NSG meet sparks row (Lead)

September 3rd, 2008 - 10:02 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi/Washington, Sep 3 (IANS) A “secret letter” reportedly written by the Bush administration assuring the US Congress that Washington will terminate nuclear trade with India if New Delhi conducted a nuclear test has created a fresh row with opposition parties accusing the Manmohan Singh government of misleading the country on the nuclear deal. The Bush administration told this to Congress in correspondence that remained secret for nine months but was made public only Tuesday by Representative Howard L. Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Washington Post reported Wednesday.

The dramatic disclosure comes just a day ahead of the second special meeting of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in Vienna. The two-day conclave from Thursday will consider a revised draft to grant India a clean waiver from the existing rules of global nuclear commerce.

A list of 45 questions on the nuclear deal was submitted to the State Department by Berman’s predecessor Tom Lantos way back in October 2007 and answers were sent on Jan 16, 2008.

“The answers were considered so sensitive, particularly because the debate over the agreement in India could have toppled the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that the State Department requested they remain secret even though they were not classified,” according to the Washington Post which quoted a spokesman for Berman as saying he had made the answers public because the US Congress must have “relevant information”.

The disclosure seemed to contradict the Bush administration’s stated intention to push for a clean waiver in the NSG.

US ambassador to India David Mulford, however, clarified in New Delhi that there was nothing secretive about the Jan 16, 2008 letter by the State Department, which runs into 26 pages.

The letter “contains no new conditions and there is no data in this letter which has not already been shared in an open and transparent way with members of the Congress and with the government of India,” Mulford said.

The letter says the US would help India deal only with “disruptions in supply to India that may result through no fault of its own,” such as a trade war or market disruptions.

“The fuel supply assurances are not, however, meant to insulate India against the consequences of a nuclear explosive test or a violation of non-proliferation commitments,” the letter said.

The report may embolden sceptics in the NSG to demand the inclusion of a reference to testing in the India-specific waiver.

New Delhi has made it clear that it will not accept a waiver from the NSG if it contained prescriptive provisions like testing, periodic review of India’s compliance with non-proliferation norms and curbs on export of reprocessing and enrichment technologies.

Manmohan Singh has assured parliament many a time that India has not sacrificed its strategic deterrence and right to test a nuclear device in the 123 bilateral nuclear agreement it has signed with the US.

Leading opposition parties in India and critics of the nuclear deal have predictably seized on the report to attack the government over what it called “misrepresentation” of the nuclear deal.

“With this revelation it has become clear that the Congress party has misled the nation since beginning. We will go to public about this and would renegotiate the deal if we come in power,” Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) spokesman Prakash Javadekar told IANS.

The Communist parties, which withdrew their support to the Congress-led ruling coalition over the nuclear deal, touted the “secret letter” as clear evidence of their “worst suspicions coming true”.

“It contradicts what the prime minister has said. The prime minister has misrepresented facts to parliament,” D. Raja, a leader of the Communist Party of India, told reporters.

“This agreement is not in India’s interest as it will reduce India to a junior military ally of US imperialism,” he charged.

The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) said in a statement: “The Manmohan Singh government stands thoroughly exposed before the country for compromising India’s vital security interests.

“Proceeding with this deal will mortgage India’s sovereignty and make India’s civilian nuclear programme vulnerable to US blackmail for the next forty years.”

The CPI-M demanded that the Congress-led government “suspend all further moves to operationalise the anti-national nuclear deal”.

The United Progressive Alliance government, however, quickly went on a damage-control exercise and assured that India is only bound by the 123 bilateral agreement it has finalized with the US.

“India is only bound by the 123 bilateral agreement which is an international agreement,” Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari said.

“There is nothing to get worried about. We don’t need to re-look and re-examine the agreement,” he added.

Despite it putting on a brave front, there is considerable concern in the government about the likely negative fallout of such disclosure on discussions in the NSG. Sceptics may seize on this and confront the US with charges of double standards saying it was asking them to do things which Washington will never allow.

Department of Atomic Energy chief Anil Kakodkar, a key interlocutor on the nuclear deal, has been called by the political leadership to New Delhi for consultations on how to counter the likely negative repercussions of such disclosures in the NSG.

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