Changing Asia Series Lecture on “India-US Civilian Nuclear Agreement: 10 Years Later” by Siddharth Varadarajan, Founding Editor of the Wire, journalist and academic on July 9, 2018

Society for Policy Studies in association with India Habitat Centre held a lecture on the “India-US Civilian Nuclear Agreement: 10 Years Later”

By Siddharth Varadarajan, Founding Editor of the Wire, journalist and academic

Chair: C Uday Bhaskar, Director, Society for Policy Studies.

Programme Details
Date: July 9, 2018
Time: 7:00 PM
Venue: Gulmohar Hall, India Habitat Centre


India-US nuclear deal led to repositioning of India in global order: Varadarajan

“The nuclear deal has enhanced India’s strategic profile,” said Siddharth Varadarajan, Founding Editor, The Wire and a strategic analyst while analyzing the India-US civilian nuclear agreement ten years after it was signed.

In his talk at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, he argued that the origins of the 2008 deal can be traced back to the July 18, 2005 meeting between the then US President George Bush and the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He said, the contours of India’s nuclear policy were drafted and accommodated in the 2005 agreement.

Drawing attention to India’s nuclear tests, he said though the Pokran II tests set off a crisis of sorts with the US, paradoxically, it also opened a window to accommodate India’s nuclear status through innovative possibilities. “As the US accepted the reality, Washington started negotiating with India to find a modus-vivendi after the sanctions had hit a brick wall,” he said. He also pointed out that even after the 1974 peaceful nuclear explosion, India was able to access nuclear supplies provided these were safeguarded. What changed was the NPT’s decision a year later to provide supplies only to signatory members.

He said the landmark joint statement of July 2005 that set off the India-US nuclear deal was one that was drafted very quickly. The US committed to end its restrictions on civil nuclear energy materials to India and also work with its partners to amend NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group) guidelines. India, on the other hand, committed to separate civil and military nuclear facilities and agreed to place only the former under nuclear safeguards.

He pointed out that what then followed was a three year period of extremely bruising negotiations where the US “tried very hard to undo some of the conditions of the 2005 agreement”. He said the US tried to scale back from what a full nuclear cooperation would mean, as it took advantage of the divided opinions in India. The matter came to a close only when PM Manmohan Singh stated in Parliament that the “sum total of what India will decide will depend on the July 2005 agreement.” The US then understood that it cannot force India to concede more than what was agreed to in July 2005.

Varadarajan observed that at the end “what emerged from the final 123 agreement (in 2008) was something both sides were satisfied with. All the issues were adequately addressed.” He underlined three major aspects that need to be considered if one were to do an audit of the deal.

The first factor that he analyzed was the technical aspect and the impact that the nuclear deal had on India’s existing nuclear power generation. He said, “The agreement had a very clear positive impact. In the years preceding the agreement, the capacity factor was as low a level as 50 per cent, largely because of shortage of uranium. Today, the capacity factor is between 70 to 80 per cent. There are now 22 nuclear power plants and 8 reactors. 10 additional pressurized reactors have been sanctioned which point towards the ease with which nuclear material can be acquired.”

Looking at the negative side of this aspect, he said technology issues, cost reasons and problems with land acquisitions have delayed the French and American companies from setting up their facilities in India. Another major issue that has prevented the deal from achieving its full potential is the liability clause. Under the law, liabilities are imposed on the operator and not the supplier and the Indian victims can use tort law to hold the operator accountable.

Commenting on the law, he said. “We need to ensure that liabilities are used on the manufacturers and not just the operators. How else can the safety of the products be ensured? Making suppliers share the burden, in the event of an accident is a sensible way to my mind.”

The second aspect that he dwelt on was the effect that the nuclear deal had on the international system. He recalled that the predominant view at that time was that if the US signs such an agreement with India , the entire nuclear non-proliferation order will collapse. “The global nuclear security structure has definitely weakened. But that is because of the US and China,” he said. He gave the examples of China’s support to Pakistan and the “unpredictability” and “unilateralism” of US President Donald Trump vis-à-vis Iran and North Korea to validate his point.

The third aspect that Varadarajan highlighted was the foreign policy gains. “The nuclear agreement with the USA remains one of the few examples of successful systemic re-positioning of India in the global order. The deal removed the shackles of the technology denial regime which had encircled India since 1978. India now has greater room for maneuvering now,” he said.

“India’s status in the international regime has grown in the last 10 years. The tangible benefits may not be too much but India’s foreign policy heft has grown,” he added.

In his concluding remarks, he said, “The final test of the difficult journey we embarked on in 2005 will be the extent to which India can use its current heft in contributing to the management of potential conflicts, not just in the region but in the wider international order.”

C Uday Bhaskar, Director, Society for Policy Studies referring to some of the issues raised in the Q&A answer session said, “The 1974 nuclear tests should not be seen as a blunder, instead we can look at it as strategic diffidence.” He also countered Varadarajan’s argument that India’s vote against Iran in 2005 in the IAEA was avoidable.” He said, “The 2005 vote against Iran was not an easy one. India took the decision it did, reluctantly, for Delhi did not want to lose strategic space apropos the USA.” Bhaskar added that for India the abiding challenge in the nuclear domain will be to avoid a Hiroshima experience and the Fukushima nightmare.

The talk was organized by India Habitat Centre in association with Society for Policy Studies, as part of the Changing Asia lecture series. It was attended by Dr. Sanjaya Baru and Dr. Harish Khare, two former media advisers to the Prime Minister, Arun K Singh, former Indian ambassador to US, diplomats and members of the strategic community.