Bending over Backwards

Published: 23rd January 2015 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd January 2015 11:35 PM   |  A+A-

In his pronouncements, US president Barack Obama has indicated that American companies will be actively discouraged from investing in production plants abroad, offshoring operations, and exporting jobs; Indian pharmaceutical industries would come under the intellectual property rights hammer, and the H1B visa regime will not be loosened. Taken cumulatively, they pretty much muck up prime minister Narendra Modi’s plans for productively courting America.

The serious clash of economic interests only highlights the even more severe collision of strategic interests which, despite the good intentions of both sides, will ensure that, as in the past, only a limited India-US partnership will accrue. This reality, not fully grasped by Delhi, is compounded by the fact that the Indian government operates without any definite ideas about what the national interest is or where it lies on particular issues, whence a lot is negotiated away in return for nothing.

One expected Modi to not turn national interest into a fungible commodity as his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, had done and, as a canny insider in the evolving global politics in which India’s centrality in an Asian security scheme to contain China is readily conceded, that he would extract maximum concessions from the US while surrendering little. This hope is belied by the list of giveaways in the offing.

On climate, Modi has apparently agreed to 20% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, bringing India in line with the Western consensus at the upcoming Paris summit. This presumes India can skip the smokestack industrial stage and absorb the inordinately high cost of going in massively for clean energy. It begs the question: Where are the resources for such rapid switching to come from?

Modi’s eagerness to buy enriched uranium-fuelled American reactors of untested design that the US is unwilling to risk installing on its own territory is equally puzzling. Especially because the contemplated executive action to get around provisions in the Civilian Nuclear Damage Liability Act 2010 imposing “unlimited” liability on nuclear technology suppliers is subversive of this Act, which the BJP voted for in Parliament and, which in fact represented a congealing of the opposition to the 2008 civilian nuclear cooperation deal with the US. But consider the proposed solution: An insurance pool is to be created by the public sector General Insurance Corporation (GIC), meaning that the Indian people will be the guarantors of untested foreign nuclear technology and in case it proves faulty and leads to an accident, will have to pay up for the thermal and radiation deaths in the hundreds of thousands and for damage to public and private property running into billions of rupees in case of a nuclear accident traced to faulty foreign nuclear technology beyond the measly $300 million the supplier company coughs up per the Convention on Supplemental Compensation the Manmohan Singh hurriedly signed. With the perpetrators thus going scot-free, it could be the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy plus all over again.

For surrendering so much India gets the promise of entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Though why Modi is keen on joining these groups, considering they are means to drag India into the 1968 non-proliferation treaty net, is a mystery. Indeed, by not buying foreign reactors or joining NSG India can at any time resume testing to obtain a credible thermonuclear deterrent, export without any restraint its highly evolved natural uranium reactors and technology under the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, and the billions of dollars saved from not buying the inordinately expensive foreign reactors, could be invested in realising the three-stage 1955 Homi Bhabha plan for energy self-sufficiency, by developing on a war-footing the indigenous advanced pressurised heavy water, breeder, and thorium reactors. Indeed, the GIC “insurance pool” could be more imaginatively deployed to insure Indian companies producing indigenous nuclear reactors and ancillary hardware and erect any number of power stations in the country and to export to friendly states in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This will spur Indian industry, generate more industrial employment, increase the value of India’s share of global trade, and more vigorously push the “Make in India” policy than putting Indian money in American pockets.

Modi buying into the MTCR is still more troubling. It will mean abandoning the option of paying back China for nuclear missile arming Pakistan by transferring nuclear missile and related technologies to countries on its periphery and compelling Beijing to share in our “nuclear nightmare”. But if pleasing Washington is priority then the rumour doing the rounds gains substance that Avinash Chander was kicked out of DRDO because he was pushing for the 12,000km intercontinental ballistic missile frowned upon by Washington to complement its disapproval of India’s acquiring high-yield thermonuclear warheads/weapons.

The one bright spot is the military-to-military links the 2005 defence cooperation framework has delivered with joint exercises. Its extension to 2025 will mean more of the same laced with billion-dollar buys of US hardware (such as C-17 and C-130J airlifters), a transactional slant Washington is satisfied with. As regards, military technology transfer, Delhi seems reconciled to the US policy of starting low, going slow—hand-launched drones and surveillance modules—as the way to go!

Acknowledging the global power shift, America has been inclined to pass the baton of the predominant power to China in the manner the “weary Titan” Great Britain did to the US during the turn of the previous century. Such a policy was proposed by Obama’s deputy secretary of state James Steinberg and enunciated in 2008-2009 as the doctrine of “strategic reassurance”. It led to the “G-2” concept and president Xi Jinping’s conceiving of “core relations” to, in effect, run the international system. This is the strategic disjunction keeping India-US ties from becoming intimate. Because to brighten the prospects of a possible US-China condominium, Washington since the 1990s has been systematically hindering India strategically, hugely complicating the Indian national security calculus. In the circumstances, bending over backwards to please the US will only invite derision, not win India respect, even less international standing. It is a lesson that remains unlearned.


The author is professor at the Centre for Policy Research and blogs at


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