A strange obsession with the NSG

With the waiver of 2008, India no longer needs the Nuclear Suppliers Group for its civil nuclear facilities. Why is it then pursuing a second-class membership so avidly?

June 24, 2016 01:34 am | Updated October 18, 2016 01:43 pm IST

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The government’s obsessive quest for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is very like the hunting of the Snark, a macabre, tragi-comic pursuit which ends with the hunter becoming the quarry. Why is it so desperate? The External Affairs Minister, usually a sane voice in the wilderness of her government, has apparently said at her press conference a few days back that there is a difference between sitting outside a room seeking the indulgence of others and being inside making the rules. Of course there is, which is why India used to press for an expansion of the UN Security Council, where non-members actually do have to wait in an antechamber when it is in the closed sessions in which it conducts business. But the NSG is not the Security Council, and with the waiver of 2008, India no longer needs it for its civil nuclear facilities. It does not have to sit outside its closed door; this government has chosen to park itself there, begging to be let in, like a supplicant outside the portcullis of a castle.

Established rules The NSG has already made its rules, covering every aspect of nuclear trade, spelt out in its guidelines and trigger-lists. Complying with the fiat from the U.S. Congress in 2006, which demanded that India harmonise its export control legislation and regulations with those of the NSG, Missile Technology Control Regime, Wassenaar Arrangement and Australia Group and adhere to their guidelines if it wanted the nuclear deal, we have done so. The NSG’s original guidelines were issued in 1978 and revised in 1992. In 2010, two years after it granted us the waiver that freed us from its clutches, it decided that its rules should be updated; the revised guidelines, incorporating 54 amendments, were issued in June 2013.

Satyabrata Pal

There is no record of our having conveyed any reservations to the NSG, either over the three years it took to negotiate the changes or after it adopted them, though there are rumours that we did. Under our agreement with the U.S., our export laws and regulations either have been, or will have to be, amended to incorporate these changes.

One of these changes, though, made a crucial difference to our waiver, which “provided that transfers of sensitive exports remain subject to paragraphs 6 and 7 of Guidelines”. In 2011, before the other amendments were adopted, Paragraph 6 was revised to prohibit trade in enrichment and reprocessing with any country that has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which means that no NSG member can cooperate in these areas with India. Exactly as the NSG was set up to target India after its 1974 test, this amendment was introduced by NPT evangelists to target India after the 2008 waiver, which they could not thwart. We seem to have accepted this as a fait accompli.

As the record shows, once the NSG adopts changes, it retains them for over a decade, because its amendments are comprehensive and reaching agreement on alterations is hard. The last changes came after almost 20 years. Therefore, even if India does become a member now, it cannot beaver away at new rules. We might well want to revise paragraphs 6 and 7 again to suit our needs, but the rule of consensus, on which the NSG works, means anything we propose must be accepted by every other member. To expect those who revised Paragraph 6 of the guidelines with India in mind to accept a consensus to change or dilute its provisions is a pipedream. So if the government says it must get into the NSG because it wants to make or change the rules, it is being disingenuous.

What the government is pursuing so avidly now is a second-class membership. All other members of the NSG would trade in all phases of the nuclear cycle, except for India, where there would be a presumption of denial on enrichment and reprocessing. India would be the sole exception in the club, denied a privilege to which all the others are entitled. Why would any self-respecting government yearn for something so demeaning? It is far better to stay out of it, with the ambiguity of the unique status that the waiver granted to India.

Ripe red herrings Other arguments have been put forward for our getting into the NSG: that the waiver could be revoked, that China could create problems for India, that if we are there we can ensure Pakistan is not, and we should be in a cabal that is so powerful. These are ripe red herrings. Firstly, the waiver was not specific to the agreement with the U.S., it covered all the items in the NSG’s lists, and it has no sunset clause; India needs no further waiver to import from willing exporters anything it needs for “IAEA-safeguarded civil nuclear facilities”; from 2011, of course, this would exclude enrichment and reprocessing. It can only be revoked by consensus, and India truly would be friendless if it cannot find one influential member of the NSG to oppose a proposal that the waiver be cancelled. Neither China nor any other member can create problems for India within the terms of the waiver: whether any member sells to us or not will be dependent entirely on other factors, including its domestic laws and the strength of our bilateral relations. And if a consensus does build up around Pakistan, how would it help India to stand alone against it?

And then, how powerful is the NSG? China has thumbed its nose at it after our waiver, claiming that the new reactors it then gave Pakistan were all grand-fathered when it joined the group. That is a lie, but no one in the NSG has had the gumption to nail it. Even if they had tried, of course, China would have objected, so it escaped even the mildest censure. If a member enjoys such impunity, that might seem to be a good reason to get on the NSG, but this makes sense only if India is bent on following China into a life of nuclear crime, helping another state illegally, or doing what it has not done so far, proliferate.

Banal goals It is therefore utterly baffling that the government is straining every sinew to get into the NSG, in effect to shoot itself in the foot. But its apologists have sprung into action, lauding to the skies the Gadarene rush to Seoul. We are told that India now no longer fears foreign policy failure, that this mindless slavering for what it should not want, and cannot have, actually reveals a new level of self-assurance, the overcoming of deference towards the great powers, the confidence to finesse conflicts of interest, the dexterity to maintain relations with parties mutually hostile, a willingness to take risks and to go it alone that is the great gift and quality of this government, a break from the timidity of the past.

These though have been the hallmarks of Indian foreign policy from Nehru onwards. The difference now is that the goals are so trivial and banal, and the special pleading for the government so obsequious and filled with amnesia.

In the first few years after Independence, when India was at its weakest, Nehru took on the great powers in a series of initiatives — on apartheid, decolonisation, disarmament — where India took the lead and was prepared to stand its ground, at first alone, until others joined. It helped develop the utterly new concept of peacekeeping, which the UN Charter had not catered for, and was one of the largest providers of forces, to challenge the West, which used its armed strength to bully and invade. On Indira Gandhi’s watch, India was prepared in 1971 to resist the pressure of a resolution on Uniting for Peace, passed in the UN General Assembly on December 7 by a vote of 104-11, with 10 abstentions, calling for an immediate cease-fire with Pakistan, until it had won its strategic objectives in the east.

P.V. Narasimha Rao opened an office in South Africa as soon as the transition from apartheid began, well before the African Union was prepared to countenance this, balancing India’s relations with the rest of the continent with the need to influence change in a vitally important country. He began the rapprochement with Israel, without sacrificing relations with the Arabs, that Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government carried forward. And, when India was at a low ebb, it nevertheless had the courage and foresight to claim a permanent seat on an expanded Security Council, an initiative that the first NDA government pressed on with, even after the nuclear tests of 1998 drove India into temporary isolation. Mr. Vajpayee had the vision and the courage to try to make peace with Pakistan, and take India into the U.S. orbit, Manmohan Singh taking both initiatives forward, with the nuclear deal a leap in the dark, which took enormous self-confidence and conviction to execute.

These truly were enterprises of great pith and moment. What has this government done? Promoted an international day of yoga: Nehru was the Swami Vivekananda of his day, promoting peace as a spiritual value, Mr. Modi channels Baba Ramdev. Asked for Masood Azhar to be put on the proscribed list of international terrorists. And now the NSG.

Watching the Light Brigade of the British cavalry charge straight at the Russian guns at the Battle of Balaclava, the French Marshal Pierre Bosquet said, “It’s magnificent, but it’s not war, it’s madness.” This tilting at the windmills of the NSG is manic, but it’s not diplomacy, it’s folly.

Satyabrata Pal is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan.

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