New Delhi, Sept 20 : Armed with a permit for global nuclear trade, Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh will leave next week for the United States and France hoping to seal atomic energy deals and discuss cooperation in defence and counter-terrorism.
Dr. Singh will fly out on Monday for what will be India's first top-level diplomatic engagement since a global nuclear cartel allowed it access to nuclear fuel and technology, overturning a 34-year-long ban for testing nuclear devices.
Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon yesterday said that Dr. Singh is also expected to use the visit to review with US President George Bush the progress of an India-US nuclear deal awaiting approval by the US Congress, where it faces significant opposition from the non-proliferation lobby.
"On September 25, the Prime Minister will meet Bush and carry on the conversation from their last meeting at Hokkaido during the G8 summit meeting with the G5. We expect the two leaders to review the progress in the implementation of the wide range of initiatives that we have been taking in the last three years which have transformed the relationship between India and the US," Menon said. At present, just three per cent of India's total power requirement in generated by nuclear plants, a proportion New Delhi aims to increase to around 25 per cent by 2050, taking billions of dollars in investment.
Besides the nuclear deal, the Prime Minister will hold talks on issues ranging from defence to terrorism and the global financial crisis.
He will also address the UN General Assembly and is also scheduled to hold bilateral meetings with other heads of state, including Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari.
In France, Dr. Singh will meet French President Nicholas Sarkozy and is expected to sign a nuclear pact under which India could obtain, subject to fulfilling international safeguards, nuclear fuel from France for reactors purchased from it.
"We will have to sign the India- specific safeguards agreement because that will then be the safeguards which will apply to the cooperation under those agreements. Signing is only the first step of the process, which then will continue until the reactors are contracted for, supplied and brought under safeguards under the India-specific safeguards agreement. So these are actions which will proceed in parallel because we will discuss the commercial issue with the commercial entities concerned who will actually do the supplies," Menon said.
Prospects for nuclear trade with India, expected at about 27 billion dollars in investment in 18-20 new nuclear power plants over the next 15 years, have boosted the stock market value of nuclear equipment makers.
There has been talk the deal could be ratified by Congress and ready for signing before Dr. Singh ends his US visit, but Indian officials remain cautious in their optimism.
"As far as we are concerned, it is 123 when it enters into force which will govern the relationship. We are not going to participate in their internal political process, nor are we going to comment on everything that happens in that process," Menon said.
According to analysts, Dr. Singh will want to move from talk to action when it comes to nuclear energy, and will try to put bilateral mechanisms in place with the United States and France to ensure that proposals move forward quickly once agreed upon.