|Singh and Obama
Washington, Sept. 17: A long shadow has been cast before the Prime Minister meets US President Barack Obama on September 27 following Manmohan Singh’s decision a fortnight ago to appoint a fierce opponent of his signature nuclear deal with America as a special envoy for disarmament and non-proliferation.
Senior officials of the Obama administration expressed fears to this correspondent on condition of anonymity that Rakesh Sood will try to abort the already enfeebled efforts by Westinghouse and GE, on the one hand, and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL), on the other, to set up the first American atomic power plants in India as a follow up to the 2005 nuclear deal.
The US nuclear energy industry — and the Obama administration by extension — have already been disenchanted for months about the slow progress in the entry of Westinghouse, GE and others into India because of New Delhi’s nuclear liability law and other factors which they see as roadblocks to realising the objectives of the nuclear deal.
As a face-saving effort to flog the dead horse of Indo-US civilian nuclear cooperation, officials on both sides have decided that a commercial agreement for advancing efforts by an American nuclear power company and NPCIL will be signed during Singh’s visit to the White House.
But that is small comfort for those here who worked hard to operationalise the 2005 deal and have been peeved by a consensus in the last few years that while Russia and France have walked away with the fruits of the deal, the US has been stranded at almost the starting point.
Earlier this year, in a similar face-saver, a pre-early works agreement was initiated between the two sides. “Pre-early works agreement” is an unheard of concept in such deals where “early works agreement” is what initiates work on setting up power plants.
It was clear then that this unconventional element was introduced in the Indo-US context only to give the impression that the civilian nuclear deal between Washington and New Delhi is not dead.
In a risky initiative, September was fixed as the deadline for inking contracts with Westinghouse and GE during US secretary of state John Kerry’s trip to New Delhi in June.
The commercial contract to be signed during Singh’s visit is an attempt to window-dress that initiative but it falls way short of what was envisaged when Kerry went to India for the Strategic Dialogue with the UPA government. There are miles to go before American companies realistically get down to work on atomic power plants in India.
The worry here now is that with Sood in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), the journey by GE and Westinghouse to produce power in India will only get longer and more difficult.
When Ronen Sen was appointed as ambassador to the US in July 2004 by the newly-minted UPA government with a mandate to energise and give added substance to ties between New Delhi and Washington, one of Sen’s earliest decisions was to shunt out Sood from the embassy in Washington.
The latter was then deputy chief of mission and had completed only a fraction of his new posting in the US capital. It was one of the worst-kept secrets at the embassy here then that Sen and his deputy developed serious differences over how to deal with America.
Sen was a pragmatist and wanted to build on the “Next Steps in Strategic Partnership” or NSSP, a landmark initiative between the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government and the administration of President George W. Bush. The NSSP was created to expand Indo-US cooperation in civilian nuclear activities, civilian space programs, and high-technology trade.
Sood was a hardliner, chronically suspicious of US intentions, his reservations born, no doubt, from long years of battling the nuclear apartheid against India as the country’s foremost expert on disarmament who pioneered the setting up the disarmament division of the external affairs ministry.
The Indo-US nuclear deal was born out of the NSSP after Sood was given honourable discharge from Washington as ambassador to Afghanistan. But it was clear during the few months that Sen and Sood worked together that there would be no-follow up steps to the NSSP — let alone any nuclear deal on the horizon — if Sood had remained as number two at the Mission in Washington.
According sources at the embassy at that time and members of the American strategic community here, Sood would profess faith in deepened strategic cooperation with the US at internal deliberations at the Mission, but would then go out and undermine those very efforts. Three months and 16 days after Sen’s appointment, Sood was packed off to Kabul.
But it is this underhand behaviour by Sood in 2004 that is worrying the Americans now. The PMO has become the pivot of Indian foreign policy after Shivshankar Menon’s appointment as national security adviser and a line-up of special envoys he has spawned with the approval of Singh became super diplomats, undermining the sanctity and viability of established diplomatic channels on Raisina Hill.
American concerns have been multiplied because the institutional head of the ministry’s disarmament and international security affairs division, D.B. Venkatesh Varma, is due to leave his post shortly for Geneva as ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament.
Varma was the “nuts-and-bolts” man for the nuclear deal from its announcement in 2005 to the final step of signing an additional protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2010.
Last year, Varma was given the first S.K. Singh award “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen India’s position in the global nuclear order” by a five-person panel of judges that included Vice-President Hamid Ansari, national security adviser Menon and foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai. The award was given away by Sonia Gandhi.
Although Varma’s successor is an expert with long experience in disarmament affairs, there are fears that he may lack the stature to stand up to Sood, who is senior to him in the Indian Foreign Service by 16 years. should he repeat his behaviour in Washington in 2004.