Pied Piper Obama leads India nowhere
The Modi government’s efforts to cobble together a consensus for entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group were characterised by oversight, bluster and blind faith in the outgoing American president, and demonising China is not the solution
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi
On July 9, the outgoing Austrian ambassador’s official residence in the capital was the venue of a farewell party in full swing. It was only a couple of days earlier that PM Narendra Modi had returned from what seemed like a successful whistle-stop tour of five countries. It appeared that he had garnered support from two of the most recalcitrant members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), Switzerland and Mexico, to back India’s entry to the club that controls the world’s nuclear commerce and technology. As the party got noisier, an ambassador from a Latin American country toying with his wine glass asked this writer: “Has India got firm support from Switzerland? My information is that they are not supporting your candidature. In fact, there are three countries whose ambassadors are in this room that are opposing the Indian bid.” Well, that was a bombshell!
In a consensus-based body like the NSG, the opposition that was gently articulated by the ambassador made it amply clear that India’s candidature would be resisted at the Seoul plenary not just by China, but also by other countries. This critical piece of information, which should have impacted the strategy of the external affairs ministry to help the country slide into the NSG, was available immediately after the PM’s handlers suggested a triumphant return from his foreign tour. Why they chose to close their eyes to these developments has a touch of mystery to it.
Expectedly, India’s attempts to get into the NSG were rebuffed. The NSG, which seeks to prevent nuclear proliferation by keeping a check on export of material, equipment and technology that can lead to the making of a nuclear bomb, made it clear that they did not want to have a country that was not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) or Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). India had got an exclusive waiver in 2008, but was keen to get into the group to ensure its interests were protected.
The refusal of the NSG to accommodate India has come as a rude shock to the personalised foreign policy of India’s itinerant prime minister. His break-neck, seven-day, five-country crusade, ranging from Afghanistan to Qatar to Switzerland, with Mexico and the US thrown in for good measure, failed to garner support from many other countries that had reservations on the issue of the NPT and about the processes that would be initiated to include non-signatories. As stated above, Switzerland, which promised to back India during Modi’s visit to Berne, was found doing a volte-face during the Seoul meet. All of the BRICS countries, apart from Russia, namely China, South Africa and Brazil, refused to support India’s candidature. For this rejection, India directed its ire at China. Immediately after the news of India’s failure emerged, our foreign office blamed “one country” for its discomfiture. Indian journalists who travelled to the South Korean capital were told that the country was backed by “consensus minus one”, which means that 47 out of 48 countries were for its inclusion and only China was holding out. The mood at the diplomat’s party plus a closer reading of happenings suggests that at least 10 countries had misgivings about India’s entry as they all felt it would create a wrong precedent.
The moot question, then, is why did the Indian government decide to push for NSG membership when clearly there was no consensus around its candidature? Why were our mandarins so hopeful? Commentators hint at miscalculation and a misreading of global politics. Some blame the PM for being a victim of his own hubris. The truth is that India was banking too much on the US to change the nature of support in the 48-member group, remembering that the group was created at its behest to stop India from enlarging its nuclear weapons programme after it tested its first nuclear bomb in 1974.
China took the high moral ground by stating that those who haven’t signed the NPT should not become part of the group. And if indeed such a process was being initiated then Pakistan, which has also not signed the NPT, had equal right of admission. China has been calling India a spoilt child of the Western world that demands privileges not due to it
After that India managed to get a complete waiver at the NSG when it signed the civilian nuclear deal with the US. Quite evidently, 2016 was different as President Barack Obama refused to replicate his predecessor, George W. Bush’s aggressive diplomacy to get India heft in the NSG. Pious words about how New Delhi should be a member were expressed, but it did not work the phones to get India in. Otherwise, there would not have been a situation where, according to Chinese sources, 10 countries opposed India’s entry. What has taken Indian diplomats by surprise is the matter of why the US did not really stick its neck out even when India had committed to purchasing six Westinghouse nuclear reactors from it. A US State Department official had even hinted that the process to induct India had been initiated and it could be part of the group before 2016 ends. To buttress this point, the NSG has announced that it will appoint a special envoy and the outgoing head of the group, Rafael Grossi, to negotiate with all those countries that have inhibitions about inducting non-signatories of the NPT.
It is not that India was not expecting China to stonewall its membership. But it had hoped that at the last moment the Chinese would back off to preserve bilateral gains that have accrued to both sides over the past few years. India’s trade with China exceeds $70 billion. The Indian PM flew to Tashkent to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (Asia’s NATO), which was largely meant to beseech Chinese President Xi Jinping to make a “fair and objective assessment” of India’s NSG membership request. Seemingly, the Chinese president was unmoved by Modi’s charm.
China took the high moral ground by stating that those who haven’t signed the NPT should not become part of the group. And if indeed such a process was being initiated then Pakistan, which has also not signed the NPT, had equal right of admission. China has been calling India a spoilt child of the Western world that demands privileges not due to it. It finds any comparison with India abhorrent and reminds its noisy detractors that its southwestern neighbour’s economy is barely 20 percent of its own. India finds this argument repugnant and some commentators have even gone to the extent of claiming that China’s status as the high priest of nuclear non-proliferation morality is enough to make one roll on the floor laughing. It was China that provided, albeit in a clandestine manner, technology and material to help Pakistan become a nuclear power in the 1990s. Predictably, Pakistan has taken credit for tripping India’s chances. What did the Pakistanis do? They did not try to collect frequent flier miles like the Indians did. On the contrary, their foreign policy adviser, Sartaj Aziz, made 11 phone calls to members of the NSG and their National Security Adviser cautioned the world about the dark US-India conspiracy to belittle China and Russia. The rest of the heavy lifting at the Seoul meet was done by the Chinese who effectively closed the door on India – until it becomes a signatory of the NPT, that is, which does not even apply to India, as the country is already a nuclear weapon state.
The Indian government embedded its petition to the NSG for membership on the imperative of meeting the Paris climate change targets. Closer reading found the figures as well as facts largely overstated and wrong. In its document it projected 40 percent non-fossil power generation by 2030, which goes contrary to its commitments. What the government wanted was supply of nuclear fuel to help reach its power targets and the supplier countries had no issues on that.
The moot question, then, is why did the Indian government decide to push for NSG membership when clearly there was no consensus around its candidature? Why were our mandarins so hopeful? Commentators hint at miscalculation and a misreading of global politics. Some blame the PM for being a victim of his own hubris. The truth is that India was banking too much on the US to change the nature of support in the 48-member group, remembering that the group was created at its behest to stop India from enlarging its nuclear weapons programme after it tested its first nuclear bomb in 1974
Another point raised by the Indian government about why it was desperate for membership of the NSG had to do with changes brought about in its statute through its 2011 amendment to prevent those who had not signed the NPT from enrichment and reprocessing. There was a suggestion that the UPA government had slept at the wheel when it did not act immediately to prevent these amendments. If that is the case, it must be borne in mind that the NDA government moved the application almost two years into being in power. Also, there were periodic checks on India enforced by nuclear purists like Switzerland and New Zealand. There was felt to be no serious cause for concern as India has been walking the straight and narrow path. In other words, there was little merit in forcing the issue of membership. Some foreign policy watchers claim that India should not have broached the issue of the vulnerability of the absolute waiver that we got in 2008 as our status as beneficiaries of exceptionalism could be questioned by other members of the group.
Sources in the External Affairs Ministry claim that there was a lack of preparation in pushing our bid. However, despite the hard work put in by the PM, there was hope that the support of the US government would fill in the gaps in our campaign. The US encouraged India to push its candidature, but it was not enough. Officials were heard grumbling that in the absence of the 2008 effort there was no hope in hell for India to gain entry into the NSG. The US had promised that India would become a member of the NSG later in the year.
There is no clarity about how a lame duck US president can get India anything, but our hectic foreign policy can be explained. A senior official told Hardnews that the reason Indian leaders are travelling all over Africa to drum up support is that Modi wants to garner as much in terms of foreign policy gains as possible while Obama is in power. After he demits office there is no guarantee his successor will show similar affection for India. Senior government officials think that the harder they push in a world where India is seen as the sole bright spot, the greater the speed at which the opposition to their candidature will melt.
After this major foreign policy debacle, temperatures are rising in Delhi. Modi has tried to make light of the rejection by stating that it was a blowback of sorts over his popularity attained during his visit to the US. This is a clear case of denial that surely will not help the country’s cause, but only force India to make wrong policy choices, the most dangerous of these being unnecessary belligerence towards China. There has been a campaign to boycott Chinese goods and suggestions are also coming from policy hawks to toughen the narrative towards Beijing including confronting it in all possible theatres. All this could turn incendiary in the event of China getting an unfavourable verdict from the International Court of Arbitration at The Hague on the issue of the South China Sea.