NEW DELHI -- Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appeared to have secured enough support to move forward with a heavily contested nuclear-cooperation pact with the U.S., saving his Congress Party-led coalition from the brink of possible collapse.
After a meeting with Mr. Singh, the unaligned Samajwadi Party, which holds 39 seats in the national Parliament, said late Friday that it will throw its support behind the prime minister on the nuclear pact. The party's seats will offset the imminent loss of support expected from Congress's leftist allies, who have heavily criticized the deal for favoring American interests, and likely allow Mr. Singh to maintain a crucial majority in India's national legislature.
Mr. Singh has scheduled a Tuesday meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush at the G8 summit in Japan, where he is expected to confirm that he plans to proceed with efforts to finalize the deal.
The pact, first announced in 2006, would give India access to American civilian nuclear technology in return for opening its nuclear facilities to international inspections. If completed, it would be a major foreign policy achievement for Mr. Singh -- one that he has staked much of his political reputation on. It would also be a rare bright spot in a year of escalating inflation, slower economic growth and high food prices that have dimmed his government's glow and weakened its chances of staying in power in the next polls, which must be held by May 2009.
The nuclear deal may do little to reverse Congress's fortunes, however. Political analysts say that compared to inflation and food costs, the nuclear pact will have much less sway when elections come. "It's not at all an electoral issue," says S. Chandrasekharan, director of the South Asia Analysis Group think tank in New Delhi.
Several steps also stand in the way for the deal to be completed before Mr. Bush leaves office in January. Once Mr. Singh gives the green light, as he is expected to do next week, it has to be approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which monitors sales of nuclear technology, before reaching the U.S. Congress. The deal is expected to meet some resistance at the NSG, which requires unanimous support of its 45 members to approve the pact.
If the deal does not reach Congress by September, it may not be approved by the time Mr. Bush leaves office, said Gary Ackerman (D., N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, on Friday.
Mr. Singh has made the pact a hallmark of his energy policy. For years, India has been struggling to meet its growing energy needs. The pact -- and the nuclear technology it would bring from the U.S. -- promises to help ease some of that burden.