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Volume XLIV, No.48

Lame Duck Session: Why US Senate Must Pass Civilian Nuclear Deal

by Reshmi Kazi

Tuesday 24 April 2007


As the US Senate goes into the lame duck session, India’s chief concern is pitched on the outcome of “The United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006”. The results of the US mid-term elections have been decided overwhelmingly in favour of the Democrats. Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats have a more conservative opinion on the Indo-US civilian nuclear energy deal and propose to impose some killer amendments to the Bill that will be unacceptable to India. Given the state of affairs what are the chances for the nuclear deal?

To begin with, in the present election out of a total of 435 members in the House of Representatives, about 20 Democrats have captured the Republican seats. The majority strength of President Bush’s party has been reduced from 232 to 206. But even then over 400 members of the present House have retained their position in the new House. In the Senate, the Republicans have been able to retain their strong presence. That spells some hope for the nuclear deal.

The Indo-US nuclear deal enjoys overwhelming bipartisan consensus within the Congress. In July 2006, the Republicans had overwhelmingly voted in favour of the deal. In the present mid-term polls all major Democratic leaders have ‘publicly’ expressed their support for the Bill. Key Democratic leaders in the Senate like Joseph Biden, Harry Reid, Bill Frist, Richard Lugar and John Kerry adhere to their earlier position on the civilian energy deal even after the elections. There is no reason to believe that these Democrats would prefer to delay or kill the Bill which they themselves are backing very hard. The general perception that the Democrats are going to nuke the deal is therefore not correct.

Yet another factor that is working in favour of the deal is Senator Hillary Clinton, who won the elections with a whopping majority and is presumably a prime contender for the Democratic nomination in the 2008 elections. With her new-found election victory, Democrat Hillary who is in favour of the Bill can be expected to influence the Democratic majority to vote for the Indo-US nuclear deal.

The civilian nuclear energy deal is crucial for maintaining balance and stability in Asia. With China’s “emergence” as a major economic giant in Asia, it is important for the simultaneous existence of a strong power to prevent Beijing from developing into a hegemon. This is certainly not to say that India is to play a junior partner to the United States and engage in any Washington sponsored containment policy of China. What is important to understand is that “strength respects strength” and to that extent it is vital for India to emerge as a strong power in Asia. The civilian nuclear energy deal is critical as it will fulfil India’s energy requirements and subsequently meet the country’s economic challenges. An economically strong India will invariably attract increased foreign investments and trade.

As a nuclear weapon power, India has played an exceptionally responsible role despite not being a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. As a functioning democracy, it has also played by far a commendable role in combating terror groups and non- state actors than many developed Western democracies.

The passage of ‘S 3709’ Bill or the civilian nuclear deal is central to the India-US relationship. The nuclear cooperation legislation has gathered tremendous popularity and is viewed as a benchmark for enormous trade, commerce and cooperation on bilateral levels. The deal holds huge economic benefits and several US companies are eagerly waiting for the deal to pass so that they can invest in the Indian markets. The US sees a close strategic relationship with India as vital to its national interests. The US nuclear energy firms will eventually benefit from the deal by selling its civilian nuclear power to India. India is the fourth in the world with its purchasing power. Besides, in view of the mutual strategic cooperation, the US arms manufacturers will get Indian orders for strategic supplies and that will benefit them. The nuclear deal will enable the US and India to collaborate on joint development of future weapons systems like the BMD. To this extent, India can provide the US with software technology engineers required for ambitious projects like the BMD.

The deal has also enabled Washington to achieve a physical status within South Asia. Prior to the deal, the US influence in the region was exercised from a distance. However, the deal has literally brought Washington closer to the South Asian nations. Moreover, India has the world’s second largest Muslim population and a stronger relationship with India would be beneficial for the US to foster better relations with the Islamic world particularly Afghanistan and Iraq. Thus the US sees a resurgent India with an eight per cent plus growth rate as a potential partner both strategically as well as economically. The deal will pave the way for strengthening the global non-proliferation regime which constitutes a cardinal principle of the Bush Administration.

Given the enormous mutual advantages that the deal holds for the two democracies any effort by the Democrats to thwart the civilian nuclear agreement in the lame duck session will be politically unpopular in the Congress. Any further delay in the passage of the deal would only heighten uncertainly over the issue. The nuclear deal is a symbolic factor for strengthening India-US lies and the US Senate must take every step to step to move India and America forward.

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