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Modi discovers the prose of governance

By Amberish K Diwanji
January 28, 2015 12:29 IST
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'The BJP's partisan stand in 2011 didn't just hurt the UPA, it injured India.'

'Reviving the nuclear deal was crucial before the Obama visit... It was time for the BJP to admit that it was wrong, and redo the civil nuclear liability laws,' says Amberish K Diwanji.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the Obamas at the Republic Day parade. Photograph: MEA/FlickrIt was once famously said: Opposition is poetry, governing is prose!

If any party is discovering this aphorism, it must surely be the Bharatiya Janata Party, which was in Opposition for 10 long years and is now in power.

The US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement and then prime minister Manmohan Singh's self-confidence saw the United Progressive Alliance return to power in 2009.

The landmark deal made India a member of the nuclear club without having to sign the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), a privilege granted to no other nation in the world. India could now invite investments and import components for its civil nuclear reactors.

Needing a Civil Nuclear Liability Act as part of this agreement, activists and the BJP forced the government to put the onus for any accident primarily on the suppliers of the nuclear components. It was a disastrous move.

There is little doubt that the memory of the Bhopal gas tragedy, in which government bungling (many would say connivance) saw the multinational Union Carbide pay a pittance of $470 million in 1989 (which at today's rate would still be less than $1 billion) for all the damage caused, played a role.

Indians were, rightly, determined that never again would those causing an accident get away so easily.

But activists and NGOs tend to have a unipolar view. A political party has to be to be far more nuanced: It must balance the rights of the people with the need for investment.

The BJP, in its blind hatred for the UPA, forget this rule. Joining the activists and NGOs (do note the hypocrisy considering how the BJP government deplaned a Greenpeace activist recently), it forced the UPA into accepting the stringent norms to get the bill passed on November 11, 2011.

It was a disastrous move. Forget foreign nuclear firm refusing to set up plants in India, even Indian companies were now running scared.

Civil nuclear investment never took off.

As explained by many astute experts, nuclear plants run for decades. How can a seller be held responsible for some nuclear accident that might take place, say, 40 years after a component was sold?

Surely the responsibility must rest primarily with those who operate and maintain the nuclear plant (whether foreign or Indian)?

Even in the Bhopal case, Indians in 1984 only blamed Union Carbide, forgetting that some blame must also lie with the government agencies and others whose job it was to ensure that safety norms were adhered to, that rules were followed.

As Fukushima showed, negligence at a nuclear plant in Japan can be disastrous. In India, it will be catastrophic. But any responsibility belongs to the many parties involved -- sellers of components, buyers (who must inspect the components for quality), maintenance crew, government authorities (whose job is to ensure everything is fine), et al.

If a part fails and causes an accident, make the seller pay. But if poor maintenance causes an accident, then the liability must lie with the maintenance team or the operations team, not the seller (unless he sold a faulty component).

The BJP's partisan stand in 2011 didn't just hurt the UPA, it injured India.

Reviving the nuclear deal was crucial before the Obama visit, the catalyst to reviving the somewhat moribund India-US ties. The question was how.

The BJP has, since taking office last year, gone back on its many promises and/or taken U-turns without a hint of embarrassment (remember black money, Swiss accounts). It was time for the BJP to admit that it was wrong, and redo the civil nuclear liability laws.

The compulsions of governance are, after all, different from the rhetoric of the opposition.

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