T. P. Sreenivasan
February 26, 2015
The breakthrough in the nuclear liability issue is not a solution but a declaration of intent to resolve difficult issues. The final settlement may come at a different time under different leaderships. For the present, it is important to keep the dialogue going for the greater good of India and the U.S., and it may have value which goes beyond nuclear trade
A month after the “breakthrough understanding” on the nuclear liability issue was announced by U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, its practical value now looks diminished, while its symbolic importance as indicating the willingness of the two sides — India and the U.S. — to start a new chapter in the relationship comes to light. It was a willing suspension of disbelief on both sides to move on to new areas of cooperation, which have revitalised a defining relationship of the 21st century.
The irony of the announcement on the progress in the nuclear liability issue is that its architects were once the arch enemies of the nuclear deal. As a Senator, Mr. Obama had moved killer amendments to the deal in its early years. Mr. Modi’s party supported the liability bill to kill the deal, which they could not defeat on the floor of Parliament. Neither of them could have their heart in finding a way to open nuclear trade with each other. Mr. Obama would rather sell sophisticated weapons and technology to India to restore balance in bilateral trade. Mr. Modi has not listed nuclear trade in his list of priorities.
A test for India
A conspiracy of circumstances, however, made it imperative that Mr. Obama and Mr. Modi should make progress on the liability law. According to American commentators, the liability law was a test of the new Indian government’s strategic global outlook and willingness to fulfil its commitments. For Mr. Modi, the solution to the liability issue was necessary to revive the bilateral relationship in order to secure his primary objectives of “First Develop India” and enhancing defence technology. For both of them, it became a symbol of a new beginning, marked by a demonstrated ability to overcome impediments, even if it has left issues unresolved for the time being. A show of solidarity was more important than the commencement of reactor imports. It was the legal solution for a political issue.