India-US agreements have history of last-minute dash



Indian officials working on a trade deal for announcement during US President Donald Trump’s India visit on February 24 and 25 shouldn’t despair at the lack of progress lately because Indo-US deals, agreements and announcements have tended to go down to the wire historically. Something to do with how democracies work?

The 2010 US support for India’s claim to permanent membership of the UN Security Council was not irreversibly final till 10-15 minutes before President Barack Obama and his delegation set out for Parliament in New Delhi where he announced it, overturning a long-running US policy.

Similarly, the foundation of the historic 2006 Indo-US civil nuclear agreement was laid a year before in a joint statement cleared just minutes before President George W Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced it in a joint press briefing in the Rose Garden at the White House.

There are still seven days left to undo the damage done to the negotiations by top US trade negotiator Robert Lighthizer’s last-minute cancellation of his Delhi trip for end-stage discussions to finalise the deal in time for Trump’s visit starting February 24. Though a deal appears unlikely at this time, with a view understood to be gaining ground among certain US officials that it should be pushed to later this year, New Delhi is still trying and hoping to settle it one way or the other soon.

Anish Goel, who was a senior director for India at the National Security Council in the Obama administration and travelled with the president to India on his 2010 trip, recalled that Obama, who had been buffeted by supporters and opponents of US support for permanent membership of the UNSC for India for weeks and months leading up to the moment, had “wanted to be reassured” one final time before committing himself to it in a November 8 address to a joint session of India’s parliament. Previous administrations had toyed with the idea of supporting India’s claim as a reflection of its growing global importance but they had pulled back, unwilling to overturn a decades-old US policy. So Obama, who cared deeply about his legacy, had been characteristically deliberative.

Obama and his advisers met on November 8, 2010, at ITC Maurya, where they were staying, for a final review of what had been a “provisional decision” taken before they left for India. And with just minutes left for the delegation to leave for Parliament, President Obama sealed it. Goel said in an interview that the president himself wrote the paragraphs announcing his administration and the US’s support for India’s claims to a permanent seat at the UNSC.

“As two global leaders, the United States and India can partner for global security —- especially as India serves on the Security Council over the next two years,” Obama said, reading the paragraphs he had written himself, referring to India’s upcoming two-year term on the council as a temporary member. “Indeed, the just and sustainable international order that America seeks includes a United Nations that is efficient, effective, credible and legitimate. That is why I can say today, in the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed United Nations Security Council that includes India as a permanent member.”

Nothing has changed even a decade on. India is still not a permanent member of the UNSC, despite having secured the support of three other permanent members — four in all — with the exception of China.

Another historic development in Indo-US relations that was reached in a last-minute dash was the framework of the civil nuclear deal of 2006. It was signed in Delhi, but its foundation was laid in a series of meetings and exchanges that took place a year before in Washington DC.

Here is a reconstruction of those late night and early morning negotiations based on recollections of key players involved at the 10th anniversary of the announcement of the framework of the agreement between President Bush and Prime Minister Singh on the morning of July 18, 2005. The deal ensured that India would allow international regulators to inspect its nuclear facilities for civilian use, which, essentially, refers to power generation.

Under pressure from some members of his delegation, PM Manmohan Singh had asked Natwar Singh, his foreign minister, to tell the Americans to call off the deal, the officials recalled.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wouldn’t settle for a no as an answer, and demanded a meeting with Singh, but the PM was reluctant as he didn’t want to rebuff her. It was the night of July 17, 2005; when Singh and Bush were slated to announce a deal the next morning from the Rose Garden at the White House.

At 12:05 am, Singh is supposed to have said, “If the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commissioner and the national security adviser (MK Narayanan) are not going along with the figure, let’s call it off.” Rice finally got to meet Singh, but just minutes before his Rose Garden appearance. And then, all parties were all good to go. The historic Indo-US civilian nuclear deal was announced on July 18, 2005.


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