Home >Opinion >Implications of India–US nuke deal

Day one of US President Barack Obama’s visit to Delhi for the Republic Day parade saw India and the US arriving at a welcome political resolution of the long-festering civilian nuclear cooperation agreement that began as far back as July 2005. On Sunday, Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that they had removed the roadblock that had held up any meaningful movement on civilian nuclear cooperation for the last 10 years. They added that the agreement would soon move to “commercial cooperation".

The major hurdles were provisions of the nuclear liability bill passed by Indian Parliament (at the Bharatiya Janata Party’s behest) in 2010 that Delhi sought and the intrusive inspection (also referred to as flag rights in perpetuity) that the US was insistent upon. Reconciling these positions remained difficult till the Obama visit and the removal of this hurdle is very significant for the bilateral relationship, which has been in a state of extended stasis in the substantive areas of strategic and long-term cooperation.

To allay any ambiguity about what had been agreed to, foreign secretary Sujatha Singh asserted: “Let me underline, we have reached an understanding. The (nuclear) deal is done."

While the roadblock has no doubt been cleared at the highest political level—with India agreeing to create an insurance pool that will mitigate the anxiety of the US entities as regards supplier liability and Washington in turn accepting the International Atomic Energy Agency inspection protocols—the road to be traversed remains uncharted and potentially complex. Legal and insurance-related dissonances will have to be harmonized.

US companies will examine the fine print of the revised contractual obligations and the larger global nuclear constituency, which includes private sector entities, and nuclear-capable governments will have to be brought on board the proposed India-US bilateral framework.

The larger symbolism of the Sunday breakthrough will have a positive ripple effect at many levels. The long-held disappointment in the US that India had not fulfilled the expectations that had been hinted at when then US President George W. Bush in 2005 had embarked upon the radical path to end India’s nuclear isolation, will now be assuaged. This positive orientation to the bilateral ties, in turn, will impact other areas of US-India cooperation that have lain moribund and the defence and military technology sector is case in point.

While India and the US inked a comprehensive defence agreement in mid-2005—for the record it preceded the draft civilian nuclear cooperation agreement—there has been little progress in this domain for a decade. The reticence of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government and the reluctance of the Indian legislature to endorse a closer relationship with the US contributed to the resultant stasis.

However, since assuming office in May 2014, Prime Minister Modi has infused a remarkable degree of political energy and determination into the relationship with the US and the Obama visit is a culmination of some very deft and swift high-level diplomacy. The manner in which President Obama has been received and the general consensus across India marks a definitive punctuation in the India-US bilateral relationship. It may be averred that New Delhi is no longer hesitant to publicly acknowledge its desire to impart mutually beneficial content and strengthen its linkages with the US. And the bipartisan support in the US complements this positive augury.

For India, the strategic context is stark. While the US is currently the world’s largest economy and leading military power, over the next decade the Chinese economy will overtake it, though it may still be a military subaltern to the US. Till now, India has had an uneasy relationship with both Washington and Beijing. The bitter estrangement with the US over the nuclear issue has only now been diluted, but the relationship remains limited and tentative. With China, Indian wariness is even deeper and the unresolved territorial dispute and the nature of Sino-Pak strategic cooperation remain troubling. This is unlikely to change in the near future.

The Obama visit and the manner in which the nuclear roadblock has been removed would indicate that India is determined to enhance its comprehensive national capabilities by engaging with the US in a more robust manner. The ripple effect will no doubt be felt by other capitals, including Beijing, Moscow and Tokyo.

C. Uday Bhaskar is director at Society for Policy Studies, in New Delhi.

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