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India-US trade deal has a chance based on history of last-minute dash to finishing line

The 2010 US support for India’s claim to permanent membership of the UN Security Council was not irreversibly final till 10 or 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.

Updated: Feb 18, 2020 10:18 IST

By Yashwant Raj, Hindustan Times Washington

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US President Donald Trump (ANI photo)

Officials working on a trade deal for announcement during President Donald Trump’s upcoming visit shouldn’t despair at the lack of progress lately, because India-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 or 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.

The foundation of the historic 2006 India-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 of the White House.

There are still seven days to undo the damage done to the trade negotiations by US top negotiator Robert Lighthizer’s stunning last-minute cancellation of a visit to Delhi for end-stage discussions to finalize the deal in time for President Trump’s visit to India starting August 24. Though a deal appears unlikely, with a view understood to be gaining ground among certain US officials that it should be pushed to later in the year, Indians are still trying and hope to settle it one way or the other soon.



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Anish Goel, who was senior director for India at the National Security Council in the Obama administration and travelled with the president to India on the 2010 trip, recalled that Obama, who had been buffeted by supporters and opponents of US support for permanent UNSC for India for weeks and month 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 Indian parliament.

Previous administrations had toyed with the idea of supporting India’s claims as a reflection of its growing global importance but they had pulled back, unwilling to change decades of US policy. So Obama, who cared deeply about his legacy, had been characteristically deliberative.

The president and his advisers met November 8 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, and, Goel said in an interview, the president himself wrote the paras announcing his administration and the US’s support for India’s claims to a permanent seat.

“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,” the president said, reading the paras 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.”

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Nothing has changed 10 years since. India is still not a permanent member of the UN Security Council despite having secured the support of three other permanent members. four in all thus, with the exception of China.

Another historic development in India-US relations that was reached in a similarly 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 by President Bush and Prime Minister Singh on the morning of July 18 in 2005, by which India allowed international regulators to inspect its nuclear facilities for civilian use, power generation essentially.

Under pressure from some members of his delegation, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, had asked Natwar Singh, his foreign minister, to tell the Americans there will be no deal, according to those officials. Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice wouldn’t settle for a no though, and demanded a meeting with Singh, but the prime minister was reluctant. He didn’t want to say no to her.

It was the night of July 17, 2005 and Singh and Bush were scheduled to announce a deal 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.” The chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission at the time was the outspoken Anil Kakodkar, a hardliner who was seen to have been asking the toughest questions. There were differences over the number of reactors India would open up to international inspection and safeguards.

Rice finally got a meeting with Singh, but just minutes before the Rose Garden appearance. And then, they were all good to go. The deal was announced on July 18, 2005.

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