September 18, 2007 / 11:55 PM / in 10 years

Indian left asks govt to delay nuclear deal 6 months

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India’s main communist party asked the government on Tuesday not to pursue a controversial nuclear deal with the United States for six months and warned of a “political crisis” if it went ahead.

But Washington’s envoy to New Delhi said time was running out on the deal seen as the centerpiece of the new warmth in ties between the once-estranged democracies.

The deal aims to give India access to American nuclear fuel and equipment to help meet its soaring energy needs even though it has tested nuclear weapons and is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The fresh threat from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), came on the eve of a second meeting of a joint panel formed to resolve differences between leftist parties and the government over the agreement.

The row has destabilized Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s 3-year-old coalition, which is shored up by leftist parties, and analysts have said that early elections -- normally due in early 2009 -- are likely.

“We still hope that the government ... will not come under U.S. pressure and not go ahead with the agreement,” CPI(M) chief Prakash Karat told a rally called to protest against the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement.

“All we say is that wait for six months,” he said. “In six months, in the next parliament session, there can be debate on this ... listen to all the opposition and try and get a solution.”

“Otherwise there will be a political crisis in the country, we don’t want this crisis.”

Communists say the deal hurts India’s sovereignty and exposes the country’s foreign policy to Washington’s influence. They have threatened to end their support if the government pursues talks needed to secure global approvals for the deal.

Government negotiators say that the deal cannot be suspended as it still requires a final approval by the U.S. Congress and this needs to be secured early next year before Washington is swamped by presidential elections.

U.S. Ambassador to India David Mulford echoed those sentiments, saying “time is of the essence” for the pact.

“Now, we must take the last steps,” he told a business conference in New Delhi. “The U.S. Congress must vote once more on the ... agreement, an action best accomplished by this administration in the life of this Congress.”

In Washington, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said the “legitimate debate” going on in both democracies was normal and healthy. But he added: “We all have political timetables and it’s better to do this as soon as possible.”

Eni Faleomavaega, a Guam Democrat in the House of Representatives active in Asian affairs, said that despite delays, “I believe there is strong bipartisan support” for the deal in the U.S. Congress. “That’s how we passed it in the first place.”

So far, the Indian government has not indicated it could back down and hopes that a panel formed to resolve the row will convince the communists to support the deal.

However, analysts are not too confident that the two sides will be able to find common ground.

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