Prime Minister Narendra Modi has walked the extra mile to demonstrate his government’s sincerity towards even the more restrictive interpretations of the Bush-Manmohan nuclear agreement that was agreed upon in 2005. Early in 2015, India issued an FAQ to clarify points in the CNLD (Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage) Act passed by Parliament. This ensured that the Indian operator, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL), would agree to waive supplier’s liability voluntarily, thereby opening the doors to investment by US companies in the nuclear sector. Subsequently, an international convention, which leaves the liability question in the open, was signed in the form of the Convention on Supplementary Compensation (CSC), an agreement that in the view of some experts is contrary to some of the provisions of the CNLD Act. In its efforts at building a new paradigm in India-US relations, the Narendra Modi government has shown political courage in being very accommodating of US and other international requests for information and visits to nuclear installations, so as to demonstrate good faith before the international community to an extent not done by any other nuclear weapons state (NWS) or by India till this period.
Given the fact that a single megawatt of nuclear power costs far more (around Rs 25 crore on a conservative estimate) than an equivalent quantum of solar (Rs 9 crore) or thermal energy (Rs 6 crore), with costs for both the latter duo declining at the same time as the cost of nuclear power installations is rising, several experts question the need for significant investments in nuclear power plants manufactured abroad. They say this makes little sense when India itself has mastered the capability of setting up plants of 1 Gigawatt size and has the potential to export this technology to friendly countries. However, in deference to international sensibilities, thus far the export market has not been seriously looked at by the Modi government. Indeed, India has gone the extra mile in assuaging concerns on fossil fuel utilisation by signing COP21 and declaring carbon emission targets despite a minuscule volume of per capita emissions. This means that the reporting requirements to international agencies (controlled by countries with much higher per capita carbon emission levels) have gone up significantly. However, in order to show that India is no longer a problem in the matter of battling climate change but part of the solution, Prime Minister Modi has voluntarily affixed India’s seal to global agreements on climate change, after decades of this country being an outlier in such matters. Interestingly, the global climate has risen by 1 degree Celsius since 1870 and another 1 degree will be added by just two countries, the US and China, in the coming decades.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has invested substantially in his relationship with US President Barack Obama, and the omens are bright that transformational India-US agreements will get signed before the US President fades away into retirement next January. However, for such a trajectory to be maintained, it will be needed for Barack Obama to retain the autonomy from Bill and Hillary Clinton’s policies that he has shown in much of his second term, especially in matters relating to Cuba and Iran. However, so far as India is concerned, there are disquieting signs that the Clinton machine is tightening its grip over the White House. The non-proliferation bureaucracy in Washington is among the agencies heavily infused with Clinton-era holdovers, most of whom are negative towards India and still seek to ensure that this country give up its nuclear and missile programme. After being de-hyphenated during the period in office of President George W. Bush, US President Barack Obama appears to have reverted to the Bill Clinton policy of linking Delhi and Islamabad within the same bracket, including in the nuclear field. The US President’s equating of India and Pakistan in the field of nuclear security underscores the return of Clinton-style policies towards India and Pakistan in place of the recent trends towards acknowledging that the trajectories of the two subcontinental neighbours are very different. Interestingly, the US nuclear disarmament lobby has begun a drumbeat of criticism of India at the same time as it is praising Pakistan for its nuclear safety record, with even Obama praising the Pakistan Prime Minister for making the nuclear programme safer and under international protocols.
Meanwhile, there have been multiplying reports, including on alleged weaknesses of the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), the force protecting India’s nuclear plants.
At present, the expectation that India would soon get admitted to the MTCR, the Wassenaar Agreement, the Australia Group and the NSG appear to be fading. Even the two countries that have signed nuclear agreements with India (Japan and Australia) have thus far seemingly not moved towards further steps in the matter, despite more than a year having gone by. In another field, that of pharmaceuticals, there are efforts to get Delhi to dilute its stand on compulsory licensing and “ever greening” so as to benefit big pharma companies in the US and Europe at the expense of hundreds of millions of the world’s poor. As for corporate India, it is groggy with debt and stressed assets, thereby becoming easy prey for foreign funds looking for discount purchases of Indian industry. Prime Minister Modi is working hard to ensure that those responsible for siphoning off bank funds into offshore accounts be brought to justice, and it is expected that several arrests and prosecutions will take place in the coming months on this score.
Overall, prospects for a transformation in India-US relations despite numerous false starts in the past remain bright, especially in view of Prime Minister Modi’s commitment to innovative diplomacy designed to tap the global geopolitical synergies available to India. However, for such a change to take effect, President Obama will need to recover his autonomy in decision-making, and return to his efforts at changing the India-US relationship in a way that makes the two largest democracies form allies in a world filled with dangers common to both.