Why India's Pursuit Of The NSG Just Doesn't Add Up

02/07/2016 8:46 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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Table flag of India kept on table

India's recent supercharged bid to enter the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) has drawn both admiration and flak back home. Despite New Delhi's efforts failing, many have cited this as an example of bold and imaginative foreign policy. Others have castigated Indian foreign policy framers for a lack of objectives and foresight.

Both arguments have some truth to them. For years, New Delhi has pursued a conservative and overly cautious approach in foreign affairs, often underplaying its hand and undermining its own power on the global stage. This is a refreshing break from that dreary past. Prime Minister Modi's whirlwind tour ahead of the NSG vote reflected energy and conviction which has long been a rarity in Indian foreign policy. And it wasn't all failure -- the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) did approve India's application for membership, after a long-drawn process held up by Italy. What's more, New Delhi managed to isolate China to some extent in global discourse on the issue, clearly reflected in the way Chinese editorials have actively looked to downplay that very fact.

But regardless of the positives, there is also much to criticize the Modi administration for. In a pointed essay this week, entitled "A strange obsession with the NSG", former diplomat Satyabrata Pal questioned the very rationale behind India's dogged pursuit of the NSG. "[The] NSG is not the Security Council," Pal wrote, "and with the waiver of 2008, India no longer needs it for its civil nuclear facilities." The NSG waiver secured in 2008 as part of the India-US nuclear deal effectively carved out a unique path to nuclear technology for India. India now doesn't need the approval of the NSG in order to trade for its civil nuclear facilities, unlike other countries.

[New Delhi] would be better off representing developing world problems at global economic forums, rather than pursuing entry into a club whose very existence it despises.

Some argue that being in the NSG is largely a precautionary measure -- to ensure that the NSG doesn't pass restrictive legislation for countries which haven't signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), by blocking laws on the inside (the NSG works by consensus, effectively giving every member a veto vote). But Pal pointed out that the NSG has already created a framework for non-NPT nations. In 2011, the NSG voted to prohibit trade in enrichment and reprocessing technology with those who haven't signed the NPT. Even if New Delhi does manage to enter the NSG now, Pal argued, it won't manage to force the NSG to retract that legislation. Instead, by being party to the NSG's existing laws, India would only be a "second-class" member.

India's pursuit of the NSG is all the more baffling when viewed in the context of New Delhi's nuclear policy. For decades, India has opposed the NPT regime on the grounds that the treaty creates inequality in international law by allowing nuclear weaponry to some countries while denying it to most others. New Delhi rightly argues that the NPT aims only at non-proliferation and not disarmament, which it supports. But by pursuing entry into the NSG -- an exclusive club established primarily to uphold the NPT -- New Delhi confounds its own policy of opposition to the NPT, and for no visible object.

If anything, New Delhi's NSG efforts are probably part of its larger mission to gain entry into all of the world's most exclusive clubs: the UN Security Council, the MTCR, the Australia Group, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and even trade blocs such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The idea is ostensibly to gain more clout on the global stage. But membership in groups and clubs don't by themselves increase national power. (China, for example, isn't a member of the MTCR, while the NSG has countries like Argentina which don't qualify as global powers by any definition.)

India should instead be looking at positioning itself as a leader of the developing world. And it fits the bill for many in Asia, Africa and Latin America: a country blessed with youthful demographics, trying to make economic growth work in a democratic setting. If that's what New Delhi is aiming for, it would be better off representing developing world problems at global economic forums, rather than pursuing entry into a club whose very existence it despises.

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