On the table ahead of the September 27, 2013, meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Barak Obama, was a deal to buy 6,600 MW nuclear power plants from the American company Westinghouse for the state of Gujarat. To do this, India’s state-run power corporation, NPCIL, will have to accept all liability in case of any accident. Following the cyanide gas leak tragedy in the town of Bhopal in 1984 (from a Union Carbide plant; the leak is said to have affected 200,000 people for three generations and is described as one of the world’s worst industrial disasters), India’s laws say the equipment seller will bear responsibility (the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, section 17).
It was the government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1998 that conducted several nuclear weapons tests and declared India a nuclear-weapons-capable state. The then-ruling party touted it as “Shining India’s glory” and victory of Hindu India over Muslim Pakistan. In a competitive power play, Pakistan declared itself a nuclear-capable country within weeks. India developed its weapons by reprocessing nuclear-power-generating material.
In 2008, the Congress-led Manmohan Singh government chaperoned an Indo-US nuclear deal that allows India to buy equipment to generate power from abroad. The government had full support of the opposition BJP for this and won a trust vote on the floor of the Parliament. To be able to sell power plants to India, the United States revised its laws, and so did India. The Singh-Obama meeting has spurred India’s Cabinet Committee on Security on September 25 to clear the early works agreement for power plant purchase between the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. and Westinghouse. “The agreement would allow the two sides to begin negotiations, taking into account all the opposition to the civil suppliers’ liability clause from the US,” media reports said.
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This would entail tweaking India’s liability clause, shifting greater responsibility to the Indian partner (read government) from the foreign seller. It would also mean that if India can buy nuclear power production machinery from the United States, it can do so from Russia and France as well.
The more nuclear power generation capability it has, the more its reprocessing ability increases and, therefore, its weapons capability. That would be the common man’s logic. The ruling Congress, just as the opposition BJP, wants India to be a nuclear-weapons-capable state; “deterrence” is the common jargon. The BJP supports the notion of a strong, virile India.
After his nomination as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi chose the small town of Rewari, in a state called Haryana, for his first rally. The choice was significant. Haryana was where India’s mythological battle the Mahabharata was said to be fought. A land of heroes and martyrs, home to the Jat community, which once peopled the Indo-Gangetic plains right from the banks of the Indus River, now in Pakistan. The Jats also are found in border areas of neighboring states Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. In this land of the brave men, when Modi addressed ex-servicemen, beside him on the podium was one of India’s most-talked-about men, the last army chief, retired Gen. V K Singh. He is much-respected and – his handlers hope – the “soldier” community will rise at his command.
The buzz is that Singh has been earmarked in the futuristic Modi Cabinet as India’s defense minister. The example of the United States is being recommended: former generals as defense secretaries. In India, the counterpart, the defense minister, is an elected individual, chosen by the party after being elected by the people; it is a post so far occupied by a civilian. In the past year, the ruling party has accused Singh of embezzlement of defense funds, spying, attempts to destabilize a state government (noteworthy, it is the elected government in the border state of Jammu & Kashmir where military and president’s rule were the norm before 2004) and several other misdemeanors, now including “treason.” A secret military and Defense Ministry inquiry, led by the present chief of army staff – Gen. Bikram Singh, V K Singh’s archrival – is said to have nailed V K Singh in its report, leaked to the media.
V K Singh has cried foul and said he is being “victimized” and “targeted” by the Manmohan Singh government because he was “seen sharing a platform with Narendra Modi.”
Adding fuel to separatist accusations (those who want independent Kashmir), the former army chief has alleged, “ministers in Jammu and Kashmir had been paid from secret army funds.” The man aspiring to be the country’s defense minister also has accused the Defense Ministry of engineering the smear campaign against him. Calling now for a federal inquiry, veteran leader from Indian Kashmir Farooq Abdullah has said, “I think it is a very, very terrible statement that he has made. It must be investigated. The army has nothing to do with the funding of political parties. They should never do this. The army should be kept apolitical. If he has done that, (then) he has done something extremely wrong.”
So, the Indian Army has, for the first time and just before the 2014 polls, gotten royally embroiled in a political debate, with many retired generals and now “security” experts bandying their “political” opinions for or against V K Singh and the government. And, for the first time, the shadowy faces of India’s generals are being revealed for the common man – a politicized army in the making.
The BJP has not only backed him, it has said that the VK Singh inquiry report, buried in March, has been resurrected by the government now to “divert the nation’s attention from the diluting of the liability in the Indo-US nuclear deal ( a deal brokered through an act passed by Parliament in 2008).” It is being made out that the Congress-led ruling government is ready to sell the country’s nuclear safety while the aspirant BJP opposes any change in the country’s nuclear liability law, although Narendra Modi keeps reminding the country of the “golden” Vajpayee era and the nuclear weapons test of 1998. It is a foregone conclusion, however, that Modi and his friends will never actually oppose a nuclear power plant in his home state of Gujarat, nor the added weapons capability it may yield in the future, just as the BJP never opposed the Indo-US nuclear deal. This entire tiff over nuclear liability is for the television cameras.
The ruling Congress says the opposition BJP is drawing attention to the nuclear liability clause to deflect attention from Gen. V K Singh. The BJP-Congress sparring has once again drawn world attention to India’s nuclear posturing.