Three Years of the Modi Government

Indian Nuclear Policy and Diplomacy

19 Jun, 2017    ·   5300

Dr Manpreet Sethi considers the government's initiatives and performance in the nuclear field

Manpreet Sethi
Manpreet Sethi
Distinguished Fellow at CAPS
Democracies often undergo swings in policies with a change of government. India’s nuclear policy, however, in both its dimensions - weapons and power generation - has enjoyed broad support across political parties. The pace of development of these programmes may have varied depending on the personal inclination of the leadership, but the general direction of the policies has mostly remained the same irrespective of the party in power. India’s ability to conduct nuclear tests in 1998 was enabled by the continued support given to the programme by leaders of all hues while occupying the prime minister’s chair between 1948-98.

More recently, the broad-based consensus on nuclear weapons-related issues has been demonstrated through the continuing validation of India’s nuclear doctrine. This was first articulated in 1999 (and officially accepted with slight revisions in 2003) under the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by Prime Minister (PM) Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The change of administration in 2004 with the coming in of the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government headed by Dr Manmohan Singh did not lead to any alteration in the doctrine over his terms (2004-2014). Subsequently, PM Narendra Modi has yet again expressed his support for the doctrine despite the noise made by his party during the election campaign about a possible doctrinal revision.

The PM’s endorsement of the doctrine, especially its attribute of no first use (NFU) early in his tenure was the right move to set the record straight on India’s nuclear strategy. Given that India believes that nuclear weapons are meant to deter use of similar weapons, the principle of NFU is grounded in sound political and military logic. Using them first is sure to bring back nuclear retaliation from India’s nuclear-armed adversaries, both of whom have secure second strike capabilities. Hopefully, India’s leadership will continue to understand and uphold this simple logic even as India is passing through not-so-benign nuclear developments in the neighbourhood. Even if the adversaries develop ostensibly counterforce capabilities, the NDA government would do the country a favour by steadfastly declining to go down the route of nuclear war-fighting. 

Instead of effecting any doctrinal changes, the focus of India’s nuclear strategy must be on capability build-up to further the survivability and reliability of the nuclear arsenal and to lend credence to the promise of assured retaliation. To its credit, the NDA government has retained the momentum on capability as evident in the regular testing of delivery systems. Its focus has also rightly been on the full operationalisation of INS Arihant as well as making future additions more potent to enhance the credibility of deterrence.

As regards India’s nuclear power programme, the NDA inherited the major breakthrough achieved through a full operationalisation of the Indo-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, including a waiver granted by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to its members to do nuclear trade with India. The UPA had already captured the new opportunities through the signing of the memorandum of understanding (MoU) on peaceful nuclear cooperation with as many as 11 countries by 2011. However, the nuclear accident at Fukushima and the subsequent enactment of the Civil Liability Nuclear Damage Act (CLNDA), which was imbued with many strict provisions that the nuclear industry considered unfriendly for investment, significantly slowed India’s ability to encash the cooperation agreements.

On its occupation of the seat of power, the NDA - whose main constituent party, the BJP, when in opposition had been responsible for the stridency of the CLNDA - began to take steps to resolve some of the hurdles to the rapid expansion of India’s nuclear energy programme. In order to address liability concerns, the government issued new clarifications on the provisions in 2015, besides creating an insurance pool to assure nuclear industry in 2016. PM Modi also used his visits to the major nuclear supplier countries to allay their fears. However, the results have been slow, running into further problems because of the flux in international nuclear industry. Even as price negotiations with AREVA were being worked out, it was taken over by Electricite de France (EdF). Organisational and procedural realignments at their end are sure to slow the finalisation of the contract with India. Meanwhile, in another blow, Westinghouse declared bankruptcy earlier this year, placing in jeopardy India’s cooperation with the Toshiba-Westinghouse consortium.

Owing to these developments, India has not yet been able to start construction of any imported reactor. However, in an attempt to keep some of the targets on track, the NDA government has approved the construction of 10 indigenous nuclear power plants of 700 MWe each. This is a good move and will boost the local nuclear industry. In fact, it would be best if the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL), the national nuclear builder and operator, is able to show the capacity to build these plants with no financial overruns and time delays since nuclear power is today competing in the mind space with fast expanding renewable energy.

One major disappointment for the NDA has been its inability to secure NSG membership for India. On this issue, they seem to have run into the China Great Wall even as proactive Indian nuclear diplomacy was able to bring around some of the other countries that had earlier expressed reservations oabout India’s inclusion. China, however, remains intransigent for now and some clever diplomacy will be required to make a breakthrough here.

One such idea could be to prepare India to step into the nuclear export market with its own wares. India could be a nuclear supplier even without being an NSG member. It certainly has the requisite expertise especially in small and mid-sized nuclear reactors that could be suitable for many countries. In case the need for financial and fuel support to enable export of Indian nuclear reactors is felt, India could explore the possibility of partnering with some other nuclear suppliers such as Rosatom or even a Chinese company. In the next two years, the NDA administration could put in place a nuclear export strategy for India and provide a new direction and momentum to national nuclear policy and diplomacy.