Sachin Kalbag, DNAINDIA.COM
November 17, 2006
WASHINGTON, DC: When Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, took to the floor on Thursday to propose the India nuclear legislation, there was almost a reassured calm among the Indian American community as well as top diplomats on both sides that the nuclear deal would face no more hurdles.
For, Lugar is not only a foreign policy expert, but also the co-author of the Nunn-Lugar Programme that secured and destroyed materials that could be used for proliferating weapons of mass destruction at the end of the Cold War. In the US Congress, his word on non-proliferation counts.
Therefore, for both the Bush administration as well as Indian diplomats, it was crucial to win over Lugar and his House of Representatives counterpart Henry Hyde if there was any hope of getting the nuclear deal passed by Congress.
That victory was not easy. With the Bush administration busy fighting a war in Iraq and trying to cool nuclear tensions in Iran and North Korea, the job of convincing Congress on the nuclear deal was left to pro-India lobbying groups and spin doctors from at least six major multinationals including Boeing, Bechtel, GE and Raytheon who parked themselves at Capitol Hill for nearly a year.
Lobbying sources told DNA that the Indian American community, along with the Indian government and the MNCs interested in new-found nuclear market in India, spent “a few million dollars in campaign funds, gala dinner events, high-tech presentations to congressmen and senators, multimedia dockets and specially-organised trips to India to make them feel comfortable about the deal.”
Another lobbyist said, “We concentrated on convincing key congressmen and senators that India is not a proliferator of nuclear technology.”
Burns to visit India
US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns will visit India in December to start the final rounds of negotiations on the deal.
Burns will meet with key government officials in India after the US Congress agrees on a unified bill that will later become law.
“We hope to close all unresolved issues in our final negotiations,” he said.
“I was pleased to tell Shyam Saran that the bill passed in the Senate conforms mostly to what we had agreed upon. But we are speaking with the House and Senate leaderships to resolve outstanding issues, especially those that deal with the language.”
The action behind the scene
Saran, Burns’ heroics
In the words of South Asia scholar, foreign policy expert and author of India: Emerging Power Stephen Cohen: “Shyam Saran and Nicholas Burns have done more to convince Congress on the nuclear deal than anybody else. More so Shyam Saran who, with his regular visits to Washington to speak with congressional leaders, almost single-handedly was responsible for the deal to reach such a stage.” They have been together so much that Burns now calls Saran his “personal friend” and “the most knowledgeable person in the world on the US-India nuclear agreement”. With President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice involved with other events such as the war in Iraq, the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea and a tense truce between Israel and Hezbollah, it was left to Burns to negotiate the deal and take it forward ever since the July 18, 2005 joint declaration.
For the Indian side, Saran, recently relieved of his responsibilities as Foreign Secretary to concentrate on the nuclear deal as India’s special envoy, has left no stone unturned. When politicians on Capitol Hill raised concerns, he would fly down to Washington to allay fears; if the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group would put a hurdle, Saran was India’s man. His most recent success? To convince Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Minority Leader Harry Reid to take up the nuclear deal in the 109th Congress itself. If Saran had not done so, the deal would have spilled over to the next Congress which convenes in January and the nuclear legislation would have to be debated all over again, losing vital time. The nuclear legislation owes as much to Saran and Burns as much to the strategic vision of Bush and Singh.
No ‘Macaca’ moment
The irony could not have been lost on Senator George Allen. The Virginia senator, best known for his “Macaca” allusion to S R Sidharth, an engineering student of Indian origin at the University of Virginia, presided over the US Senate when the votes for the final passage of the deal were being counted. While campaigning for Virginia seat, Allen had called Sidharth, a volunteer for Democratic rival Jim Webb, a “macaca”, a racist slur. The resulting uproar cost Allen his seat. To be fair, Allen has been a proponent of the deal. He said, “I rise in strong support of the deal. We must realise that India’s nuclear weapons are for self-defence, and that India has no record of nuclear proliferation.”
First the evidence: Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are considered as two of the leading Democratic candidates for the US presidential elections of 2008. Hillary is the co-chairperson of the Senate Caucus on India. Obama is a member of the influential 18-member Foreign Relations Committee which passed the nuclear legislation 16-2 in July this year. Indian Americans voted for the Democrats in droves in the recently concluded mid-term congressional and gubernatorial elections. Now for the events: Both Clinton and Obama voted “Aye” to various killer amendments put forth by their Democratic colleagues. Why? They were not available for comment, but insiders say that both senators are so concerned with non-proliferation of nuclear technology that they would go to any lengths to keep their record intact, even if it means voting against killer amendments that could have harmed the deal.