Monday, October 08, 2007

Political tensions mount in India over US nuclear deal - IAEA Chief in India

Political tensions mount in India over US nuclear deal
October 8, 2007: AFP

NEW DELHI (AFP) — Tensions in India over a civil nuclear pact with Washington that threaten the survival of the country's ruling coalition worsened on Monday ahead of a visit by the UN's atomic energy chief.

The nuclear deal, if implemented, would allow energy-hungry India to buy civilian nuclear technology while possessing nuclear weapons, despite not having signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In exchange, India must put selected nuclear facilities under international safeguards.

The head of the ruling Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, met with communist leaders in a surprise session late Monday ahead of Mohammed ElBaradei's visit, apparently to seek permission to begin safeguard talks, reports said.

"We are trying to convince our allies that the Indo-US nuclear agreement is the best thing for the country and that it is absolutely critical for our energy needs," Congress party spokeswoman Jayanti Natarajan said on NDTV.

But India's communists say it would pull traditionally non-aligned India uncomfortably close to the United States and compromise New Delhi's military programme.

The late-night pow-wows came a day after party chief Gandhi said opponents of the deal were "enemies of progress," prompting a furious response from left-wing legislative allies who could bring down the government.

In a public meeting on Sunday, Gandhi said opponents of the pact "are not only the enemies of Congress but they are also enemies of progress and development."

"We have to give them a strong and befitting reply," she said.

The four-party left bloc, which props up Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government in parliament, responded Monday with a statement repeating its view that Congress was going "against the interests of India."

"Those who advocate the deal should know that India is capable of developing nuclear energy primarily on a self-reliant basis," the statement said.

A 15-member panel set up to iron out differences between the two sides has had little success despite a string of meetings, and in recent days the Indian press has been brimming with speculation over the possibility of snap polls.

Analyst Yashwant Deshmukh said it now looked like "the beginning of the end" of the Congress-left alliance.

"It is a question of when rather than if" the coalition will split, he said.

"Some Congress strategists believe that the party will be able to win more seats in parliament if there are elections now. And Gandhi's comments seem to reflect this belief."

The spike in tensions also threatens to overshadow a visit beginning later Monday by the UN's atomic energy chief ElBaradei.

To move forward with the deal, New Delhi has to first negotiate an agreement with ElBaradei's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), pledging to place some of its nuclear plants under safeguards.

Officials say New Delhi must clinch the IAEA pact by early November to meet a deadline to get final approval for the agreement from the US Congress.

Premier Singh told reporters over the weekend that ElBaradei's visit was in his capacity as "the head of an international agency," stopping short of saying when New Delhi will begin formal talks with the IAEA.

But independent security analyst C. Uday Bhaskar said Gandhi's comments Sunday "signalled the government's determination to press ahead" with the talks regardless of the communists' threats.

Besides an accord with the IAEA, India also has to clinch a deal with the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group, which controls global atomic commerce.

Also See: IAEA chief arrives in India as nuclear row rages: Boston Globe

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