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Addressing the nation for the first time from the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort, on August 15, 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared, playing on Robert Frost’s lines, “Today, I have no promises to make, but I have promises to keep.” The reference being to the fact that his agenda in office would be defined by the National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP) arrived at between the constituents of the coalition he headed. It is not a secret that almost every important policy initiative taken by the first United Progressive Alliance government (UPA 1), save the nuclear deal, was embedded in the NCMP. The historic India-US agreement for cooperation in the development of civil nuclear energy, and the subsequent end to what Singh has called “the nuclear apartheid” against India by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), that normalised and “legitimised” India’s status as a nuclear weapons power, was Singh’s own promise to the country that he finally kept.
The nuclear deal was not an NCMP commitment because it was only after Singh took charge as PM that he discovered that his predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had initiated an important dialogue with President George W. Bush of the United States towards this end. When the deed was finally done, Singh told Vajpayee, as the two stood alone at Singh’s official residence, “I have completed what you began.”
It is not, therefore, surprising that when Prime Minister Singh was asked, at last week’s press conference in New Delhi, what he thought was the “high point” of his decade in office, he promptly said, “the best moment for me was when we were able to strike a nuclear deal with the United States to end the nuclear apartheid, which had sought to stifle the processes of social and economic change and technical progress of our country in many ways.”
That was indeed his personal achievement in office. The rest being the product of the UPA’s jointly adopted NCMP. Two criticisms have been levelled against Singh for claiming that getting the nuclear deal through was his “best moment”. The first criticism has come from the supporters of the UPA government who wonder why the PM mentioned the nuclear deal rather than any of the important “rights” legislated by the government. The right to employment, information, education and food, claim these critics, ought to have figured higher on the PM’s list. The second criticism has come from the UPA’s opponents who claim the nuclear deal was just a “dud” and has not added a single megawatt of nuclear power to the country’s power generation capacity.
The second criticism is easily answered with facts. India’s nuclear power generation was going down month after month in the early 2000s with a decline in the availability of the required fuel. India’s domestic production of uranium was not meeting the requirements of the nuclear power sector and imports were constrained by international restrictions. What the nuclear deal did was to remove the external constraint. Having entered into the 123 agreement with India, the Bush administration lobbied with member countries of the NSG, including a recalcitrant China, to lift the restrictions on the supply of nuclear fuel to India. The capacity utilisation at India’s existing nuclear power plants has gone up from as low as 30 per cent in the months preceding the deal to over 80 per cent. India’s access to global supply of nuclear fuel is a concrete benefit of the nuclear deal. So, the deal was no “dud”.
It is true that plans for new nuclear power plants have not come to fruition, but that has to do both with the increased global risk aversion to nuclear energy after the Fukushima tragedy and to international concerns about India’s nuclear liability law. The second UPA government (UPA 2) was unable to get through Parliament the original draft of the liability law it wanted, which would have met international standards and expectations and kept costs lower. Instead, it succumbed to opposition pressure and brought forward an amended law that has been criticised by all nuclear power plant suppliers, including the Russians, French and Japanese, not to mention the Americans, and has raised the cost of nuclear power.
For India’s civil nuclear power programme to move forward, the government has to rework or reinterpret its liability law. UPA 2 has been incapable of this. Only a future government can address the problem.
The response to the first criticism would be that, at the press conference, the PM was asked what was the “best moment for him” (emphasis added) in his decade in office. Implementing the various promises of the NCMP would have given satisfaction to all the constituents of the UPA. But the nuclear deal was “his” personal initiative, for which he risked the survival of his government. To have been able to deliver on that promise would naturally constitute a moment of personal triumph.
Here again, the opposition has claimed that the deal was finally done after Singh secured a “tainted” victory in the July 2008 vote of confidence. The facts about that victory, when revealed, will absolve Singh of that charge. Aware that he would in fact secure a majority, various political actors may have decided to “taint” it by staging the “votes-for-cash” scam. But that is a different story.
The fact is that a significant majority of public opinion backed Singh’s tough stance against the CPM hardliners, they saw his resolve as being in the national interest, they liked the fact that the prime minister of the country was standing up for something and was willing to go down fighting, and they rewarded him a year later with a handsome victory in the general elections. Singh, the media declared in one voice, “is king”! If Singh did not view the nuclear deal as the high point of his decade in office, what else could he?
The writer is director for geoeconomics and strategy, International Institute for Strategic Studies, honorary senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, and former media advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh