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BJP's great leap back on the nuclear deal

By Sunanda Mehta
August 30, 2014 15:47 IST
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Ignoring all previous protests and opposition to the deal, the saffron party has changed its stance, without providing any explanation. What has changed? Accountability and explanations on this U-turn will be welcomed.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming visit to Japan is quite striking for many reasons, including the fact that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has decided to carry forward the negotiations on the nuclear deal started by Manmohan Singh. For a decade, when the BJP was in the opposition, it vociferously opposed the nuclear deal. In fact, it had so many reasons to oppose the nuclear deal that the party even deemed fit to publish a booklet titled ‘Indo-US Nuclear Deal: Why does BJP oppose it?’

Senior BJP leaders including then Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha and now Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj was particularly vocal against the deal. In the arguments she made over the four years from 2006 to 2010 over the nuclear deal and then the nuclear liability Bill, the main point was always about India acting out of weakness and a desire to please the West. In a stirring speech in the Rajya Sabha in 2005, she noted that the deal was a “big, great blunder”. In 2010, when the nuclear liability Bill was debated, she and many other BJP leaders pointedly talked about the Bill being anti-people. Suddenly, now as minister of external affairs, she is keen to bring the deal with Japan to a “very very substantive conclusion”.

This flip-flop is disturbing, especially since it so acutely highlights the lack of depth and sincerity while taking a stance. All political parties, big or small, have some organising principles and stands on major issues. If for 10 years as the main opposition party, the BJP has been opposing the nuclear deal, the nuclear liability Bill and then the dilution of the liability Act, then it owes it to the people to explain the radical shift in thinking on a very important issue.

In 2010, in the backdrop of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy judgment, Parliament saw a heated debate on the liability and accountability of the supplier. Senior BJP leaders, who are now members of the central government, expressed concern over letting the supplier go scot-free in case of an accident arising from malfunctioning equipment. Like all foreign suppliers, Japan too has expressed displeasure over such a “supplier liability” clause. The Indian government should clarify how it plans to address the concerns it and many other Indians raised exactly four years ago. The government should reassure the people and communicate its plans on how it intends to ensure “sabke saath, sabka vikas” without jeopardising the interests of millions of Indians.

The other issue that was raised by the BJP when the party was in the opposition was the safety of the existing civil nuclear facilities. After the Fukushima disaster in 2011, the BJP expressed its wariness about the safety of our nuclear reactors. At the time, Swaraj had expressed doubts about the viability of running the nuclear reactors without a thorough review. Now, instead of acting on her words, she is busy doing prep work to import reactors from other countries, including Japan, which is still reeling from the aftermath of the Fukushima tragedy. What has changed since then? The nuclear regulator is still as inefficient. The new regulatory agency that was to be created is still non-existent and, most importantly, the population living within the vicinity of the plants is still as vulnerable as before.

The nuclear deal was packaged as a solution for India’s energy poverty. Many doubted the United Progressive Alliance government’s logic for inking the Indo-US deal -- that it would “enable India to produce more power and end the power shortage in the country”. Many, including the BJP, questioned the cost of building nuclear reactors as opposed to other sources such as hydro and wind. Has setting up a nuclear power plant suddenly become easy on the country’s pocket? Why are the BJP government’s actions so contrary to everything it has stated over and over again? The nuclear industry in our country is around four decades old and constitutes a measly four per cent of the total electricity. Renewable energy, on the other hand, is just a beginner in comparison, having been initiated barely more than a decade ago and already makes up more than 12 per cent of the mix. What does this say about each source’s viability?

More and more countries are shifting to renewables. To quote the World Nuclear Report, “In 2013, Spain generated more power from wind than from any other source, outpacing nuclear for the first time. It is also the first time that wind has become the largest electricity generating source over an entire year in any country. Spain has, thus, joined the list of nuclear countries that produce more electricity from new renewables - excluding large hydro-power - than from nuclear power that includes Brazil, China, Germany, India and Japan.” The trend of prioritising renewables is now definitely on the rise and our government should not ignore it.

Unfortunately, the current government is on a deal-signing spree. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott will be in India, just when Modi will be returning from Japan. Abbott will be here to sell uranium. Has it escaped India’s notice that Australia does not have a single nuclear reactor set up on its own land and just exports the fuel needed to drive the risky technology to other countries?

The BJP’s actions are leaning towards everything they condemned in the past. For a prime minister who claims to be the country’s ‘prime servant’, some accountability and explanations on this U-turn will be welcome.

Image: An activist holds a placard during an anti-nuclear protest in New Delhi. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

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