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Not enough critical mass

As the stalled Russian deal shows, the liability Bill is delaying India’s nuclear renaissance.

india Updated: Dec 22, 2010 21:20 IST

India fittingly concluded a hectic year of diplomacy with a State visit by its oldest strategic partner. However, what was missing

at the conclusion of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit was a reminder of how India’s relationship with the world has changed. Moscow is struggling to find a new basis for its relations with New Delhi. While the latter may have all the goodwill towards Russia that a country could hope for, the real constraint is Russia’s inability to match the dynamism of Indian civil society. But the Russian visit, as well as those of the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, also served as a cautionary tale of the limits to that relationship. Despite a widespread belief within the Indian leadership that the size of its market would eventually lead the world to overlook its sloppily drafted nuclear liability law, no foreign reactor supplier has taken the bait — France and Russia included.

The many agreements signed by Mr Medvedev seem more about exploring potentialities than assured results.

The tangible accomplishments were largely in the government-to-government sphere: space, defence and energy.

There was only hopefulness when it came to encouraging Indian private firms and students to come and study in Russia. These were decisions that private India made and would depend on the environment that Moscow would provide. The converse was true, for example, with the visit of US President Barack Obama where the government’s contribution was relatively limited and much of the action was taking between private individuals. These are hardly mutually exclusive. In a perfect world, India should seek to have relations with all countries and with all facets of society, state or private. But there can be little doubt the present New Indian story is mostly about civil not official society.

The nuclear liability issue is a perfect example of how governments can get it wrong. This festering issue threatens to indefinitely stall an Indian nuclear renaissance. It is now clear the rest of the world believes the law either violates international supplier liability norms or is so poorly drafted it cannot tell either way. Rightly, no one is prepared to excuse the shoddy work of the bureaucracy and Parliament. Presumably some legal twists and turns will end this stalemate. But it is a warning that as it engages with the international system, New Delhi cannot expect to muddle through each and every time. Even a rising power must cross the road only when the light is green.