From: Reuters
Published March 5, 2008 05:19 AM

U.S. says time tight for nuclear deal, but doable

By Krittivas Mukherjee

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The United States said on Wednesday time was tight to seal a controversial nuclear deal with India, but it was still possible to wrap it up if it reached the U.S. Congress by July, ahead of November's presidential poll.

The deal is caught up in India's domestic politics, with the communists who shore up the government threatening to withdraw support if the pact is pushed through.

Also, for the deal to become effective, India has to seal international agreements before placing it before the U.S. Congress for a final approval.

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The United States has indicated the deal, which gives India access to American nuclear fuel and technology, could fall through if it is not presented to Congress by July at the very latest.

"Time is very tight. But I think we can make this happen," Richard Boucher, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, told a news conference in New Delhi.

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told parliament on Wednesday his government was still making efforts to advance the deal, regarded as pivotal to warming ties between India and the United States and important for India's growing energy needs.

"We also continue to seek the broadest possible consensus within the country," said Singh, seen as the strongest advocate of the deal within his ruling Congress party. "The cooperation is good for us, for our energy security and for the world."

After delivering a voter-friendly budget last month there has been talk the Congress party was preparing to push the deal through even if that meant an early election.

Singh's comments, analysts said, only strengthened that possibility and would help allay U.S. fears about the Indian government's sincerity.

"The nuclear deal is the hobby horse of the prime minister," said nuclear analyst R.R. Subramanian, an advocate of the deal. "His statement is a clear indication that the government is ready to bid goodbye to the leftists."

Indian communists, who resent the idea of a strategic alliance with Washington, say the deal undermines India's sovereignty.

But they have allowed the government to negotiate India-specific safeguards with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

"This is an important piece of puzzle that needs to be put in place," Boucher said. "There are other pieces of puzzles that need to be put in place as well."

After the IAEA clearance, India will need to get the endorsement of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group before placing the deal before the U.S. Congress.

The shorter legislative calendar of the U.S. Congress ahead of the November 4 election could complicate the passage of the deal.

"You start adding these things up and we are kind of playing in overtime right now," Boucher said.

(Editing by Simon Denyer and Alex Richardson)

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