Nuclear deal with US finest example of India’s foreign policy success, say former foreign secretaries Shyam Saran, S Jaishankar

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New Delhi | Published: August 10, 2018 5:04:09 PM

India and the US have not done much nuclear business even a decade after the 2008 civil atomic deal was signed.

Representative Image: Reuters

India and the US have not done much nuclear business even a decade after the 2008 civil atomic deal was signed. Yet, the real foreign policy goals, including India getting a global nuclear waiver and leveraging a great power to get ahead, have been achieved, say former foreign secretaries Shyam Saran and S. Jaishankar who played pivotal roles in negotiating the historic agreement.

The two ex-diplomats were speaking at an IIC-SPS seminar “India and the World: Ten years after Lifting of Nuclear Strictures” as they walked down memory lane to look back 10 years after the Indo-US nuclear deal and India getting an exceptional waiver for nuclear trade by the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) that had a significant impact on New Delhi’s international relations and global status as well.

Saran, who later became Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s special envoy and Chairman of the National Security Advisory Board, while recognising the advantages of the watershed moment in the diplomatic history of the two democracies, also admitted that no new nuclear power plants could be established in India post the signing of the agreement. He attributed it mostly to the problems of the liability insurance and the change in public perception after Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

“There are many reasons for that. One was the nuclear liability entanglement which we should not have got into and then Fukushima which changed from states wanting nuclear plants to saying they didn’t want them.

“But we were able to bring in fuel and our existing power plants moved from a plat load factor of around 30 per cent to over 90 per cent. Today, we have long-term agreements for fuel with at least a dozen countries,” Saran said.

“From being a target of technology denial regimes, and also testing, we are now not a target. No one now objects when India conducts a missile test,” he said, dismissing scepticism that the benefits of the nuclear deal have been oversold.

He said a partnership with the US was “very important” for India’s economic and security policies. And the nuclear deal accelerated the transformation of the relationship between the two countries.

Nuclear power plants, which were earlier running at one-third capacity, were now operating at twice that operating capacity. He said India was no more a “target” of the non-proliferation lobby and “there is a stake in India’s strength and success which was previously too ambiguous.”

Jaishankar, who is now on the board of Tata Sons, said there cannot be a sharper example of radical initiative in foreign policy than India’s nuclear deal with the US that involved overcoming several layers and hurdles in the US bureaucracy and legislative circles.

He said that the signing of the nuclear deal, a process and not an event, was to reverse the effects of “three strategic errors” of the past – the 1947 partition, delay in liberalization of economy and the nuclear diffidence.

“There was the error of partition, where we lost our territory and reach; the error of economics where many of the reforms that came in the 1990s should have come earlier, and on the nuclear side, had we pushed our nuclear programme as consistently as China did in the 1950s, we could have made the Non Proliferation Treaty deadline.”

Dwelling on the implications of the atomic agreement, Jaishankar said the deal had opened up opportunities of defence cooperation with the US like never before.

“It changed the character of India-US relationship. Importantly, it differentiated India from Pakistan in the eyes of the world and it has helped change India’s image in the world and added to its credibility as a responsible power. It branded the two countries very differently, and helped to change our relationships in the world.”

And it also, he said, opened up doors in dogmatic countries who were almost theologically opposed previously to dealing with India on this issue unless it signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) which India had consistently refused to sign because it was seen by New Delhi as an unequal treaty that perpetuated “nuclear apartheid”.

He said nuclear power was a way out for the future and hoped that US companies like Westinghouse would soon be able to “put their house in order” and be able to fulfilt their commercial commitments to India.

C. Uday Bhaskar, Director, Society for Policy Studies (SPS), who chaired the session, pointed out that there is a consensus that the world does not want another Hiroshima-Nagasaki or another Fukushima.

“India was the outsider, even outlier, till the 1998 nuclear tests were carried out,” he said, reminding a packed hall at India International Centre that India and the US were long seen as “estranged democracies” and the situation changed only after the 2008 nuclear deal.

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