South Block’s current fatal obsession is not about engaging friends and foes of the world’s superpowers. For the past few weeks, the goalposts of Indian diplomacy have changed. All energies of the Indian establishment’s many paid and unpaid megaphones are being diverted to get the PM’s dream project airborne. Since the Nuclear Civil Agreement is Manmohan Singh’s single genuine achievement in his two terms in office, he wants to ensure that it takes off in with fanfare and fireworks. He couldn’t have chosen a better venue than Narendra Modi-ruled Gujarat. Suddenly, the diplomatic discourse that had moved towards peace talks with Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif has become just a footnote in the discussion papers in the dossiers prepared for the PM’s US visit next week. Since it is customary for all visiting Heads of State to carry gifts for their counterparts, the Indian PM has been advised to take along a copy of the pact between the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) and Westinghouse, the US multinational which supplies nuclear reactors to many.
Since the PM is an accidental politician who trusts more in his academics than political polemics, he doesn’t mind ignoring the electoral compulsions and fallout of his actions. It is not a coincidence that NPCIL was suddenly activated to seek legal opinion from the country’s top law officer on how to bypass nuances and legal bindings of the nuclear law passed by Parliament. The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) reports directly to the PM and all nuclear-related establishments like NPCIL and Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) fall under the ambit of PMO. According to reports and senior diplomats who facilitated the agreement in 2008, India promised various US globocorps over 10,000 MWs of power, worth over $20 billion in contracts. Five years later, not a single deal has been finalised because of the protective Clause 17 in the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act. It was understood that the Indian operator would insert a clause in the agreement which provides heavy compensation in case of any accident. But not only the US but also its corporates have mounted pressure on India to dilute this clause. For the past few months, top leaders like Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry have been protesting to Manmohan on the delay in the dilution of the liability laws. Even the heavyhitters in the Senate have been relentlessly attacking the UPA for its inaction.
Only last month, Mark Warner and John Cornyn wrote a strongly worded letter to President Obama: “Eight years later, the agreement has not been implemented and we have yet to see India provide a workable nuclear liability agreement that allows companies to move forward.” Curiously, US corporates are not mounting pressure on their own government to encourage the setting up of nuclear power plants at home. Even America’s steadfast ally Japan is dismantling its nuclear plants following Fukushima. Hence it was puzzling that Ashwani Kumar, the PM’s temporary special envoy to Japan, should boast about the assurance he claims to have received from the Japanese on extending help to India in our nuclear energy programme. Ironically, on the same day, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe had announced that the toxic remains of the Fukushima plant would be destroyed. While the world can ignore the might of the greenback, it is India which dances to the tune of the American corporates.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the government is determined to exploit the loopholes in the manipulated and mutilated mandate it got in Parliament to pass the nuclear agreement. Obama and the US nuclear lobby hustled the agreement through at home. But invisible and lucrative assurances given to the US during the 2008 negotiations through interlocutors are now beginning to surface. The mandarins of both White House and South Block with the backing of powerful business forums in both countries are now working overtime to finalise the fineprint of a draft which will allow Westinghouse entry in India’s nuclear energy business. But the roadblock is within. According to unconfirmed sources, the AEC which dealt with superpowers and the US to push the deal through is angry because DEA had bypassed it. Also, supporters of the well-tested Indo-Russian strategic relationship are of the view that the Americans can’t be trusted as they are guided by profit motives and would subvert any legal provision which ensures the security of Indian citizens. The fight between the pro-Russian and pro-American lobbies in India is acquiring dangerous proportions, leading to the leakage of several classified documents. Even senior diplomats are surprised over the speed with which the PMO is promoting the nuke deal. Since most have been chosen for their ideological commitment to the US model and nuclear energy, they are likely to win in the end. On the other hand, those who are pleading for slow action feel that the next government may dilute the agreement. But these critics have been silenced by the PMO with the excuse that the BJP’s opposition to the unfolding revelations is pathetically feeble. Since the beneficiary of the dilution of the liability clause would be Gujarat—the palatine of BJP’s PM candidate—the PMO expects a rough but safe ride to Washington. Ironically, though Modi never misses an opportunity to attack Manmohan as a ‘maun pradhanmantri’, on nuclear projects for his state, Modi’s maunvrat has become Manmohan’s mantra for his mission. The PM may return to India wearing a broad smile and showing the V-sign even if it means an embarrassment to Congress and BJP leadership.
PS: Dr Rakesh Sood’s appointment as PM’s Special Envoy on Disarmament has stirred a hornet’s nest in the nuclear lobby within. As the PMO readies to take the N-deal forward, those who have failed to secure any post-retirement sinecures have started a whisper campaign. Their novel epiphany is that Sood would work against the deal. Some are even trying to restrain his responsibilities and minimise his say in any future nuclear engagement with the US. But the PM is in no mood to patronise the saboteurs.
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