Indian Decade

Clinton’s India Nuclear Landmine

Hillary Clinton upsets India’s opposition after putting pressure on India to change its nuclear liability laws.

There was nothing much for India to cheer about as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited New Delhi this week for the second Indo-US Strategic Dialogue with her Indian counterpart S.M. Krishna.

Indian concerns about the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group’s recent hardening of Enrichment and Reprocessing technology transfer terms remained unaddressed, while Clinton instead conveyed Washington’s annoyance over Indian nuclear liability laws, which make it possible to seek compensation from suppliers, and asked the UPA government to tweak them further to conform with international liability norms. She also asked India to negotiate with the International Atomic Energy Agency on the legislation, even though there’s no international legal requirement to do so. Finally, she spoke of some ‘remaining issues’ that need to be tackled to enable full implementation of the Indo-US civilian nuclear energy cooperation agreement.

What Clinton didn’t say directly, but what she likely meant, was that unless India dilutes its nuclear liability laws, full implementation of the deal will remain a mirage. It’s clear that although officially the United States is insisting that it will fully implement the nuclear deal, the agreement faces yet another phase of diplomatic rough and tumble. 

The UPA government can’t contemplate diluting the liability laws due to massive domestic pressure. Virtually the entire opposition, from left to right, has pressured Prime Minister Manmohan Singh into hardening liability legislation. Tinkering with this now would therefore be political suicide for his government.

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The opposition that Singh would face in making any change was underscored while Clinton was on a visit to Chennai (incidentally the first ever to the southern city by a US secretary of state) as the Communist Party of India (Marxists) issued a hard-hitting statement against Clinton’s advice to India on the liability laws.

The statement said: ‘The United States continues to exercise pressure on the Indian government to dilute the Civil Nuclear Liability law which was adopted by Parliament. This has become evident from the statement made by Hillary Clinton in Delhi asking India to engage with the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that the nuclear liability law ‘fully conforms’ with the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage (CSC). The CSC does not provide for suppliers’ liability in the event of a nuclear accident. The Indian government should reject this suggestion. The IAEA is only a depository for the Convention and cannot judge a law passed by Parliament.’

Clearly, Clinton has stepped on a political landmine in India. Expect more political parties to pile on over this issue.