by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group
After getting a bloody nose from China at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) plenary in Seoul (South Korea) last week, it is not only India’s ambition to get a foot in the door of the 48-member club that has been shattered. It has also put the red flag on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s overreaching diplomacy. It clearly emerged that his diplomacy is high on jet miles but modest on finesse. On the eve of the plenary, the Prime Minister hopped across five capitals in four days and pressed the octogenarian President, Pranab Mukherjee, to keep pace with him across different destinations. Modi’s picture with Chinese president Xi Jinping at Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, hours before the Seoul meet, made headlines in India as if the “deal” is clinched. But when the crunch came, China did not shift the breadth of a hair from its consistent position that no country staying out of Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) could claim NSG membership.
But it is not just that China remained frosty to Modi. Following the plenary, it appears that some countries that Modi recently visited, with an impression given that there had been a change of heart, actually proved steely in their rejection of India’s case as a non-NPT aspirant. And so were New Zealand and Austria, both regarded as US allies. Even Modi’s charm failed to swing Switzerland. Nor was there any proof that a Skype call from White House would work wonders. It seems Modi and his team was somewhat lacking in the fast-changing dynamic of power with the US no more the last word as it used to be in 2008. The US signed the civil nuclear deal with India then and gave it a one-time waiver to participate in nuclear trade with NSG countries. But even that advantage was short-lived. What was considered a feather in Manmohan Singh’s cap in 2008 under Republican Bush faded fast by a wave of amendments made to NSG guidelines in 2011. One of them banned trade in enrichment and reprocessing with any country which is not a signatory to NPT.
Enrichment of uranium, from its natural form to the fissile isotope uranium 235 and reprocessing technology form the core of using nuclear energy for making weapon as well as generating electricity. By banning transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technology, the 2011 amendments virtually negated the spirit of the 2008 Indo-US civil nuclear deal. It hinged on the US ‘trusting’ India that it would not stoop to divert fissile fuel from power reactors to making nuclear weapons. The amendments came after President Barack Obama had taken charge in the US, after President George W. Bush. There was no protest from Washington against NSG amendments, which again suggests a marked loss of real interest in the US in the treaty with India signed by the previous Republican presidency.
Added to that is the irresistible rise of China as a global superpower, a fact that the Modi administration failed to factor in while thinking it has got US support in its pocket. Modi visited the US four times after becoming prime minister, but it was China that correctly plumbed the depth of Indo-US relations and knew America wouldn’t raise hell if it stopped India at the NSG door. In stark contrast, when the Indian Army liberated Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971, the US, then Pakistan’s godfather, got its Seventh Fleet sailing down to the Bay of Bengal yet it did not fire a single shot as it was fully aware of the former Soviet Union’s commitment to Indira Gandhi. Developing real close ties with the US, or any big power, for that matter, is certainly more challenging that holding its leader in a bear hug, or sitting with him on a swing in one’s home state. Diplomacy is a lot more than just photo-op.
Besides, the one-time waiver that President Bush had gifted to India was good enough for the moment as it enabled India to lawfully shop around for advanced reactors from Russia, US, France, Japan or Britain for peaceful purposes. Of course these will be under international safeguards. But where is the problem if we are not pinching plutonium from them to make weapons? Of what value is NSG membership then, other than gaining respectability?
The drive shown by Modi in foreign policy could be better employed, perhaps, in winning friends at home. His government is into its third year but, barring liberalization of FDI, there is not a single mega reform initiated. Of course, Modi is trying his best to simplify procedures and rules. But can the posterity will remember his regime in the same way as the Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh regime is remembered for ending the “licence permit raj”. The effect of Modi’s dramatic clinching of majority in the lower House in 2014 is fading away in the wake of a bitter row between Arun Jaitley, his finance minister and confidante, and maverick MP Subramaniam Swamy. Though Modi’s own graph remains high. But his government’s image is taking a beating due to various domestic factors.
The drive and energy Modi has displayed in foreign relations, though admirable per se, were better invested if he had won back the party, including the sullen faces that enjoy his trusted finance minister’s public humiliation. That alone would have won him the trophy of GST a year ago, making possible seamless trade on almost uniform tariff across a nation of 28 states. It is as bold a reform as abolition of licence-permit raj, and certainly more honourable than jetting across the planet to finally have the door of NSG slammed on the face.