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Kudankulam and more: Why Putin’s India visit was a hit

By Rajeev Sharma

The just-concluded 13th Indo-Russian summit between visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was much bigger and important than envisaged so far. Two reasons why: (i) The two sides went ahead in signing defence deals worth $5 billion, defying the impression that Russia, which still takes care of almost 70 percent of Indian defence needs, is no longer a favourite; (ii) the two sides embarked upon a nuclear civilian energy cooperation road map that may well be worth a whopping $45 billion in the long term. This long-term map may be up to the year 2030.

Surely the most important concrete deliverable of the Indo-Russian summit that has evaded the media’s hawkish eye is that the two sides have decided to embark upon an ambitious roadmap for deepening their cooperation in civilian nuclear energy and construct 16 to 18 nuclear energy plants in India of 1,000MW each. This would translate into an impressive sum of $ 45 billion at today’s prices, factoring in a total of 18 new proposed nuclear plants of 1,000MW each at a price band of $ 2.5 billion. The idea is to have one nuclear plant ready every year for the next 18 years.

The nuclear plant in Kudankulam. PTI

This would mean that the Russian contribution to the Indian basket of power production would be 22,000MW – over 20 percent of India’s current total power production with the help of Russia alone. This effectively demonstrates that the Russian aura in the Indian context is set to increase and not decline as the recent events wherein the Russians lost out on many big ticket defence contracts to other nations may have suggested.

The Russians would be celebrating; not because of the financial windfall they would be getting in the coming decades but because of the fact that their Kudankulam woes are over - despite the local protests. The doubts over Kudankulam 3 and 4 should be effectively over. The Indians have conveyed that it will be business as usual with the Russians in the nuclear energy sector despite whatever obstacles that may have surfaced in context of Kudankulam 1 and 2.

The joint statement released at the end of Putin’s visit gives a good measure of how India and Russia are poised to deepen and intensify their cooperation in the nuclear energy sector. Consider the following quote from the joint statement: "The sides reviewed the progress in bilateral cooperation in the development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and reiterated their commitment to implementing the agreement between the government of the Republic of India and the government of the Russian Federation on cooperation in the construction of additional nuclear power plant units at Kudankulam site as well as in the construction of Russian-designed nuclear power plants at new sites in the Republic of India, concluded on 5 December 2008; the agreement between the government of the Republic of India and the government of the Russian Federation on cooperation in the use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes and the roadmap for the serial construction of the Russian-designed nuclear power plants in the Republic of India, concluded on 12 March 2010."

One needs to know why Putin came all the way to India for just a 15–hour visit (of which his official engagement lasted just about five hours). The most important reason is the Indo-Russian bilateral relations as they are set to play out in the next two decades.

If the nuclear energy roadmap works out as per the script, it would mean that the Russians would be leading partners of the Indian civilian nuclear energy story as they would be contributing over 20 percent of the total Indian power production by 2030 as per today’s figures.  This is from the Indian perspective. From the Russian viewpoint it would mean that Kudankulam Units 3 and 4 are no real threats for bilateral relations and merely a work in progress.

The moral of the story is simple: Indo-Russian strategic ties are in for a healthy retrofit. Those who worried about a détente in Russia-Pakistan relations at the expense of Indo-Russian ties need to take a break.

The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and a strategic analyst who can be reached at bhootnath004@yahoo.com.