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Indo-US nuke deal comes with heavy price tag

Written by: Staff

Washington, Jul 4: Two influential panels of the US Congress overwhelmingly endorsed the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal last week and the surprising part was not the ease with which it got cleared but the price that came with it.

According to analysts and experts it came with a heavy price tag and the combined lobbying efforts of business groups in both the countries that finally saw it sail smoothly through the legislature.

Over the past six years, they said, the largest consortium of businesses in India spent more than 1 million dollars on fact-finding trips to India for US members of Congress, their staff, and spouses, and on lobbying Congress to pass a law that would fundamentally change India's relationship with the United States, according to a report in the Boston Globe.

Thanks to all this, India is now all set to become the only country in the world to gain access to sensitive US nuclear technology without signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and agreeing to give up its nuclear arsenal.

In return, India would tighten its export controls and place some of its nuclear reactors under international inspections.

Supporters of the plan have consistently said it is a win-win'' proposal, increasing business ties with one of the world's fastest-growing economies and strengthening nuclear safeguards in India at the same time.

But critics say billion-dollar business interests, in the United States as well as India, have trumped the decades-old policy of trying to get India to give up its nuclear weapons programrame.

They point to the massive, behind-the-scenes lobbying effort by the confederation and the U S businesses as proof.

But one of the quietest and most persistent efforts to influence Congress on India policy has come from the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), which represents some of India's most profitable companies, according to a report in the Boston Globe.

The group was among the top international organisations paying for Congressional travel between 2000 and 2005, even though they were not registered to lobby at the time, according to a review of Congressional disclosure records conducted by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit research organisation in Washington.

During that period, they paid more than 538,000 dollar in travel expenses for trips by 19 Congress members, 11 spouses, and 58 Congressional staffers, according to the records.

Of the 50 members serving on the House International Relations Committee, eight had trips to India paid for by the Confederation, traveling or sending a staffer. One of the eight representative Barbara Lee, a California democrat, voted against the proposal last week when the committee overwhelmingly approved the deal.

In April 2005, the confederation registered to lobby for the first time, paying Barbour Griffith&Rogers, a well-connected lobbying firm, 520,000 dollar to lobby US government agencies, including the Congress, the White House, the State Department, and the Department of Defense.

Robert Blackwill, who served as ambassador to India and deputy national security adviser under President Bush, was hired by the firm to run the effort. In September 2005, the embassy of India also hired the firm, paying 240,000 dollar. Foreign organisations and governments are allowed to lobby the U S government, but they must register with the federal officials.

President Bush backed the proposal as a way to allow India to buy civilian nuclear reactors from the West, to overcome its ever-growing energy needs without resorting to pollution-prone conventional power plants.

Bush administration officials say the deal also provides a host of strategic advantages, including building a lasting friendship with a rapidly growing democracy in Asia, as a check on China's growing influence, and as a partner in fight against Islamic terrorism, which has plagued India for years.

However, it is the prospect of business opportunities worth billions of dollars that really helped fuel the deal, some analysts say.

For Indian entrepreneurs, it is an opportunity to make money on privatised nuclear power plants and buy high-tech equipment that has been restricted for decades. For U S businesses, it is a chance to invest in India's rapidly growing energy sector, to sell supplies to Indian nuclear reactors, and for the first time, to have a shot at large-scale military contracts.

If the full Congress approves the plan, the deal would cement a historic new Indo-US alliance and open the doors to billions of dollars worth of high-tech and military sales to the South Asian nation.

The Globe quoted Raymond Vickery, a senior adviser to the US-India Business Council, the US counterpart to the New Delhi-based Confederation, which is carrying out its own extensive lobbying effort, to say that congressional approval of the deal would give lockheed Martin a reasonable chance to get a 4 billion dollar to 9 billion dollar contract to supply 126 combat fighter planes to Indian Navy, a contract that India would have been unlikely to approve while sanctions were in place.

Westinghouse, whose nuclear division is based in Western Pennsylvania, could help India build a civilian nuclear reactor, and Atlanta-based General Electric would be well-placed to get a contract to supply India's reactors with nuclear fuel, Mr Vickery said.

The business prospects have spurred the US-India Business Council, which represents 200 US businesses operating in India, to hire heavyweight lobbying firm Patton Boggs to work on the issue and hold strategy meetings about how to approach skeptics on Capitol Hill.

Reports on the expenses of the American group's lobbying on India have not been filed.


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