Influential lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, notwithstanding being staunch supporters of India and the growing US-India relationship, acknowledge that for all the euphoria following President George Bush's decision to provide India with civilian nuclear reactors to alleviate its acute energy needs -- which was the tangible centerpiece of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit -- pushing through Congressional approval for such transfers is going to be a tough-sell.
In interviews with rediff.com and interactions with the media, immediately following the prime minister's speech to a joint session of Congress, where he reiterated that "India's track record in nuclear nonproliferation is impeccable," which drew the longest applause -- besides the standing ovation at the beginning and conclusion of his address -- the lawmakers noted that the problem was not India's impeccable record they were all cognizant of, the problem was the laws in the books and the fact that India is not a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and several other treaty regimes that would make it difficult for legislators to simply give the green light for such transfers.
They pointed out the argument could be made -- which, incidentally, was immediately done by Congressman Ed Markey, Massachusetts Democrat and one of the fiercest nonproliferation advocates in the US House who announced his strong disapproval of President Bush's decision and said he would introduce legislation to oppose such sales -- that changing the laws and/or making an exemption in India's case could establish a precedent and open the floodgates for other countries to make the case that Washington was not committed to the nonproliferation treaties it was a party to.
Some senior Congressional sources said while the Bush Administration can dismiss the likes of Markey and say that his attempts could be overcome, the likes of senior and influential Republican Senators like Richard Lugar, who is chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the US Senate's leading nonproliferation advocate, could not be streamrolled so easily even it were a GOP majority and a proposal that comes directly from President Bush.
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And, in such a context, these sources wondered how much political capital Bush would be willing to expend on India, particularly with some of his most loyal conservative Republican leadership members, considering that he's got major ongoing domestic and international battles, from Social Security Reform, over a new Supreme Court Justice appointee, and the continuing and protracted imbroglio in Iraq where an average of two American soldiers -- the majority of them just out of their teens -- are being killed each day.
Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, a senior member of the House International Relations Committee, who is strongly tipped to take over as head of this panel when the current chairman, the 82-year-old Congressman Henry Hyde, Illinois Republican, retires next year, dodged and weaved in diplomatic fashion quite unlike a politician when rediff.com asked her pointedly if she would carry the ball for the President by ensuring that his decision to provide India with civilian nuclear reactors is realized, said, "The President has had the correct stance in making sure that that area of the world is stable. That we don't have a military build-up that will go to the detriment of the United States or to the detriment of the very people whom these leaders purport to represent."
"In India," she said, "We have a true democracy that understands the needs of its people and we are assured that it would not be a rogue state, a pariah state, that would use weapons against its own people or against its neighbors or against the United States."
Ros-Lehtinen said, "That is the kind of partnership we need in this nuclear age. We want to make sure that the President continues that course to have stability in the region and to reward countries like India who are making those difficult decisions that they face each and every day and certainly in this nuclear age where we could have a nuclear superpower that would be a pariah state and a destabilizing element in the region that's to the detriment of India, that's to the detriment of the United States as well."
When pressed on the question and asked to be less circumspect, she acknowledged that "there are problems because whenever you say you are going to help a certain country, then you have a conflict with other countries. But I think what President Bush has done has had a very stabilizing effect in spite of the competition in the region for certain missiles, certain capabilities."
Ros-Lehtinen argued, "We've been able to neutralize the tensions and that's been to the betterment of the people whom the leaders represent. So I think President Bush has been doing the right thing. I think India has been doing the right thing as well."
Congressman Tom Lantos, California Democrat, and the ranking minority member on the International Relations Committtee, however had no qualms in laying out the problems ahead, and predicted that "this will be a highly controversial issue." He noted that "one of the most respected members of Congress, Congressman [Edward] Markey of Massachusetts has already indicated he will introduce legislation opposing this."
"I am personally inclined to support the Administration although it is not an issue without problems," he reiterated. "But I believe we'll be able to work out the problems and I very much hope the agreement between our President and the Indian prime minister will become reality."
Asked if the nearly 200-member India Caucus couldn't carry the entire House with it in terms of constituting the bulwark of support for the President's decision to assist India in alleviating its acute energy shortage by providing it with civilian nuclear reactors, Lantos said, "Nobody can speak for all of the Congress. Each of us, can just speak for ourselves."
Lantos argued, "We understand what strategy is. So I suspect that people who understand the value of India as a great democratic ally will be supportive. But I want to hoist the flag of caution. This will not be a smooth and debateless undertaking. There will be tremendous debate and discussion on this issue."
While acknowledging that "the prime minister gave a very strong presentation," Lantos, playing on the world 'impeccable' the prime minister had used consistently when describing India's record of nonproliferation, declared, "Nothing is impeccable in the political arena and I think it is important for our Indian friends to understand that. Everything is controversial. There are arguments on both sides."
Markey, in a statement drawing a line in the sand almost immediately after the joint statement by the US and India declaring the President's intent to sell civilian nuclear reactors to India was released, said, 'Now that Russia and China have agreed to adhere to the Nuclear Suppliers Group's requirements, the United States is going to ignore the rules.'
He asked, 'What will Russia say when they want to supply more nuclear materials or technology to Iran?'
Markey also predicted: 'You can be sure that Pakistan will demand equal treatment,' and asked, 'Will the Bush Administration soon be announcing equal treatment with them?'