Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s unsuccessful efforts at finalising the agreement for reactors 3 and 4 of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant with Russia underscore an important lesson: foreign policy begins at home. While Dr. Singh would have liked to ink the agreement during his Moscow visit, the fact remains concerns regarding supplier’s liability are nowhere close to being sorted out. India’s civil nuclear liability law — which bears the right of recourse against suppliers — has weighed heavily on the negotiations. The Russians want the original Intergovernmental Agreement regarding Units 1 and 2 “grandfathered” into the new one. This would render the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) liable for damage resulting from an accident. Although India initially insisted — rightly in our opinion — that the domestic liability regime govern the new agreement, subsequent signals emanating from New Delhi have been confusing. Last year, the Department of Atomic Energy suggested that rules regarding suppliers’ liability will not apply to the agreement for reactors 3 and 4. The DAE’s remarks invited the attention of the Prime Minister himself, who sought to clarify its position. The PM intervened knowing full well that any concessional treatment to Russia on this count would trigger similar demands from France and the United States. Under the circumstances, Moscow will likely raise the reactor prices.
Meanwhile, both governments have held up Unit 1’s synchronisation with the regional power grid as testimony to their robust strategic relationship. Dr. Singh’s assurance that negotiations will be completed within the earliest possible timeframe is welcome. But to arrive at a deal that assuages Russia’s concerns on suppliers’ liability, the government needs to foster greater domestic dialogue on the intrinsically connected issue of safety. The Supreme Court’s green signal earlier this year to commissioning KKNP came with several caveats. Periodic safety reviews, as the Court mandated, can only be effective if the regulatory body that oversees the process is independent. Given the concerns expressed about the Atomic Energy Regulatory Body’s functioning, it is unrealistic to expect a groundswell of support for the Prime Minister’s vision for Kudankulam. The Public Accounts Committee has gone so far as to say the AERB has “remained […] a mere subordinate authority with powers delegated to it by the Central government.” If the government wishes to seal the deal for Units 3 and 4, it needs to take the public and the government of Tamil Nadu into confidence. As he nears the end of his second, and probably last, term as PM, Dr. Singh’s foreign policy legacy will be conditioned by domestic support, not by his personal equations with foreign leaders.