For much of the weekend, TV commentators had been predicting the Narendra Modi-Barack Obama summit would see the resolution of a legacy issue hanging over the India-US relationship. In the event, the two leaders turned out to be guarded about their countries’ nuclear agreement, though Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh spoke of a “done deal”.
“I am pleased that six years after we signed our bilateral agreement, we are moving towards commercial cooperation, consistent with our laws [and] international legal obligations,” Modi said. Obama, in turn, said there had been a “breakthrough understanding on two issues that were holding up our ability to advance our civil nuclear cooperation”, and the two countries were “committed to moving towards full implementation”. Their joint statement welcomes “the understandings reached on the issues of civil nuclear liability and administrative arrangements for civil nuclear cooperation”.
Richard Verma, the US Ambassador in New Delhi, was even more guarded, saying “we think we came to an understanding of the liability [issue]”, which he said would operate “through a memorandum of law within the Indian system”.
The next steps aren’t clear, though. The situation now is that the White House expects a “Memorandum of Law”, explaining how Indian law is compatible with what the US seeks on liability. The Ministry of External Affairs doesn’t have a timeline on this, saying it is a “work in progress”.
In 2005, the US agreed in principle to support civilian nuclear cooperation with India. Ever since its 1974 nuclear test, India had been denied such technology, which would insulate it from huge variations in global energy prices.
From the US side, the deal required a modification of domestic legislation, and a special waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group. New Delhi, in turn, agreed to segregate its civilian and weapons-related nuclear programmes, bring additional facilities under international safeguards, and introduce nuclear liability legislation consistent with the 1997 Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage, or CSC. There’s also a spat over whether the US, or International Atomic Energy Agency, should track equipment sold to India, but that, most experts say, is just a bargaining chip. India’s nuclear liability law, international nuclear equipment suppliers argue, doesn’t comply with CSC, which India has signed, but not ratified.