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Millennium Post

Much ado about Macmohan

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is scheduled to leave New Delhi on 25 September morning on a four-day visit of the United States to attend a summit meeting with US President Barack Obama in Washington DC and thereafter address the 68th session of the United Nations general assembly in New York. Singh will return to the Indian capital on 1 October. The prime minister will be accompanied by a small team of top officials, comprising his principal secretary Pulak Chatterjee, national security adviser Shivshankar Menon and foreign secretary Sujata Singh among others. Foreign affairs minister Salman Khurshid, who is now on an official trip to Canada, will join the prime minister in Washington DC. India’s ambassador to the US Nirupama Rao is another key member of the team. The prime minister will take night transit halt at Frankfurt during both the onward and return journey.

Although the official agenda of the bilateral summit, which is taking place after a gap of almost three years since President Barack Obama visited India in November, 2010, is unclear even two days before the prime minister’s small team takes off to Washington DC, the visit is somewhat mired by one after another concerns and controversies – from the possibility of India agreeing to dilute a key provision of its nuclear liability law under sustained pressure from the Obama administration to the usefulness of his separate talks with his counterparts from China, Pakistan and especially Bangladesh on the sidelines of United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meet in New York in view of rising military and diplomatic tension over border disputes between India and each of these countries. Singh had skipped the UNGA meet, last year.

Ironically, Singh’s proposed meeting with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on the UNGA sidelines was first announced by Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dipu Moni. The Bangladesh government had said that India had requested for the meet. Similarly, Pakistan media reported that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has already left for New York, would meet Singh on the UNGA sidelines and is likely to seek a comprehensive dialogue with India. The knowledge of such a Singh-Sharif meeting was, however, denied by India’s foreign secretary, Sujata Singh, in her pre-visit press briefing in New Delhi. There has been no communication from the prime minister’s office either on the subject. The external affairs ministry, however, listed Singh’s possible meetings with some other heads of governments of countries such as China, Egypt, Libya, Palestine, Germany and the United Arab Emirates.

The source of the speculation that the prime minister may offer a ‘nuclear gift’ to Obama is an official opinion of India’s Attorney General Goolam Vahanvati that effectively neutralises a key provision of the country’s nuclear liability law which would hold US reactor suppliers liable in case of an accident caused by faulty or defective equipment. Vahanvati has told the Department of Atomic Energy in response to its query on 4 September that it is for a nuclear plant operator to decide whether it wished to exercise the ‘right to recourse’ provided under section 17(a) and (b) of the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act. The Department of Atomic Energy is under the PM.

The attorney general’s opinion sought and received just days ahead of the prime minister’s summit meeting with the US president aimed at turning on positive American mood towards India effectively paves the way for the state-owned Nuclear Power Corporation (NPCIL) to side step the critical provision of the civil liability for nuclear damage act letting foreign suppliers off the hook if a nuclear accident is traced back to ‘equipment or material with patent or latent defects or substandard services.’ Giant US nuclear reactor vendors such as Westinghouse and General Electric have strongly lobbied with Washington DC and New Delhi to have this damaging provision amended or removed. Though the government is not in a position to accept such demands, Vahanvati’s legal opinion on the issue opens door for the Indian government to partially accommodate the US demand when the prime minister meets the US president later this week.

Five years ago, the UPA government had promised US companies 10,000 MW worth nuclear equipment contracts. Nothing has materialised so far. The civil liability act has been a sore point in Indo-US relations. This is more so because the USA has been helping India in global forums to end the country’s nuclear isolation. Singh may like to change the US perception before India goes to polls. He would like to gift Narendra Modi’s Gujarat a highly sophisticated nuclear power plant in collaboration with Westinghouse Corporation ahead of the Lok Sabha polls. Under UPA I, the prime minister had doggedly fought the left allies and risked their withdrawal of support to his government to push through the Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation pact in 2008 but failed to take that to its logical conclusion.

A meeting with Nawaz Sharif has been overdue despite Pakistani killings and increasing tension along the Line of Control (LoC). The democratically-elected new Pakistan prime minister needs to be spoken to, at least to prevent the current low intensity war like situation from turning uglier. The dialogue between the heads of the two neighbouring nuclear-armed governments may be of little use if anyone or both become too acrimonious on recent incidents and harp on the frustrating outcome of past initiatives and interactions. Even then, nothing much may be expected from the meet. This probably explains why India’s foreign ministry has been consistently down playing the possibility of a Singh-Sharif meeting on the UNGA sidelines. IPA
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