Changing Asia Series on “The Indo-U.S. Civil Nuclear Agreement-Ten Years After” led by Shyam Saran, former Foreign Secretary, on July 20, 2015

Society for Policy Studies in collaboration with India Habitat Centre held a lecture in the Changing Asia Series by Shyam Saran former Foreign Secretary on The Indo-U.S. Civil Nuclear Agreement-Ten Years After

Venue: Gulmohar Hall, India Habitat Centre.


Ambassador Saran outlined six observations as part of his lecture on the Indo US Nuclear deal. His first observation was that the deal was a reflection of the major transformation of the relationship between India and the United States. It also served as a driver for furthering this transformation. Some of the key developments that led to building confidence between the two countries include the US reaction to Pakistan’s Kargil misadventure in May–July 1999; India’s unambiguous support to the US after 9/11; and the close cooperation between the naval forces of India, US, Japan and Australia in December 2004-January 2005 to render assistance post the Indian Ocean tsunami.

The second observation was related to the negotiating process itself which was mandated by the leaders of both countries. The leaders not only remained involved, but also intervened to achieve what they had set out to do. The third observation was based on the crucial role of practical diplomacy in mobilizing support for the deal. It was the first time Indian diplomats reached out directly to US senators and Congressmen. The Indian American community was also instrumental in building U.S congressional support for the deal.

The fourth observation pertained to the mandate for the deal, which was clear and unambiguous. The brief from the Prime Minister was to seek the dismantling of technology denial regimes, re- integrate India into the international civil nuclear market without accepting any constraints on India’s strategic weapons programme. The fifth observation was with respect to the Hyde Act that caused a controversy over some of its provisions. What persuaded the Indian side to continue with the process was that the law gave India permanent and unconditional waivers from the key provisions of the US Atomic Energy Act.

The final observation concerned the importance of strategic communications or the management of both the political and public perceptions. This is one area which could have been better. It was partly due to the complex nature of the subject. It was also because members within the ruling coalition were skeptical of the unfolding partnership, given the legacy of political suspicion about the U S in this country.

Ten years after the deal, India- US relations are stronger than they have ever been. At a recent event where the deal was being commemorated the US Vice President Joe Biden noted that it was ultimately not so much about the nuclear issue, as it was about India. “Make no mistake. This (nuclear deal) has been possible only because it was India.”

This was how representatives of some of countries like Brazil, South Africa, Mexico and others confided to Indian diplomats after the waiver by the powerful Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) cartel was extended to India in September 2008, months after the Indo-US nuclear deal was concluded. The deal in many ways changed the way the world looked at India, transformed its relationship with the US and made India a major global player.

Saran said pointedly that President Bush was very keen for the US to conclude the deal with India, and even put his personal credibility on line for it. Bush believed that since India was a liberal, plural democracy like the US, his nation’s assistance was required it in order to “preserve the space for liberal, plural democracies.”

For Bush, the deal was “not about nuclear reactors”, said Saran, recounting an incident during Manmohan Singh’s visit to the White House in 2008. During the dinner at the White House, when both the sides were congratulating each other for the success in getting the legislation through, the then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice got up and addressed Singh, saying ‘Mr Prime Minister, the US has done a lot of heavy lifting on your behalf to get the deal through. I hope American businesses will be able to profit for that and American nuclear plants can be sold to India’. But Bush stopped her mid sentence and said “I do not care if there is not even one single nuclear reactor sold by the US. For me this was not about selling nuclear reactors to India, this was about our relationship.”

As far as India was concerned, there was no doubt in President Bush’s mind that it was one of the most important relationships for the US.” According to him, Manmohan Singh not only carried through the initiatives on closer India-US ties launched by the previous Atal Bihari Vajpayee led NDA government, “but also updated it. Something similar was seen with the Modi government, in not only on taking forward the initiatives, but also to a higher level.

C Uday Bhaskar, Director, SPS reiterated that this historic agreement removed the long festering estrangement in the India-US relationship and was enabled by a favorable combination of circumstances and perspicacious leadership on both sides. “Yes, the US did more of the heavy-lifting and both President Bush and Prime Minister Singh need to be applauded for their tenacity in the face of domestic criticism,” he remarked.

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