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NSG Fiasco: An Avoidable Diplomatic Disaster; By Shastri Ramachandaran

C3S Paper No. 0090/2016 

Courtesy: DNA India 

India’s failure to gain admission to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) at its Seoul session is a setback only because the Government of India (GoI) staked so much on it. Had New Delhi not made it such a big prestige issue to impress that it can have its way in joining the club, it would not have been the diplomatic disaster that it turned out to be. In fact, this is a humiliation that was courted by GoI.

This is akin to the BJP’s campaign for the Delhi assembly elections in 2015: a turbo-charged battle led from the front by Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a train of Union ministers, over a 100 MPs and party leaders in tow, all pumped up for victory. Therefore, the defeat was crushing. Otherwise, the election would not have received the importance it did, much to the BJPs disadvantage.

As more than one authoritative observer has pointed out, NSG membership is of little use to India at this stage. There is no material benefit to be gained that has not been won by the NSG waiver of 2008, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh managed through telephone calls and some deft diplomatic moves by his top officials such as Shyam Saran. With less drama, more was achieved in Vienna, although the matter had gone down to the wire on that occasion, too.

This time, the drama over getting into the club was so engrossing, that there was no debate at home on the reasons or arguments that justified such a high-pitched campaign for NSG membership. All eyes were on Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar flying first to Beijing and then to Seoul, and not flying to Tashkent; and, Prime Minister Modi going to Tashkent to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit. GoI was also a victim of its own spin, for it could not even foresee which countries — such as Switzerland, for example, which Modi visited recently — were set against India’s membership.

These worthies appear to have been astonishingly naïve in believing that, after months of China-bashing, Beijing would simply cave in and agree to India’s membership of the NSG merely because Indian dignitaries had now turned on the charm and brought persuasive skills into play. If only foreign policy and diplomacy could be conducted in such a facile manner.

Surprisingly, while India’s top diplomats were scurrying about, long before the last word was said at the NSG, Pakistan had gleefully expressed thanks to China for keeping India out of the NSG. Yet the Prime Minister’s trusted officials, particularly the Foreign Secretary and the National Security Adviser, continued with their pursuit of what was already a lost cause. It was a spectacle, and an undignified one, that was played out in four capitals — New Delhi, Beijing, Seoul and Tashkent — and to no avail.

The worst part of this drama was the Prime Minister’s aides and advisors making him believe that such eleventh hour antics on their part, and his own travel to Tashkent for a meeting with President Xi, would clinch the issue. In leading the Prime Minister on this path, the top officials were, perhaps, trying to absolve themselves of blame for an outcome that was a foregone conclusion long before they set out on these dramatic exertions. Yet Modi, having allowed them to lead him the way they did, must now accept responsibility for the result, which is a resounding rebuff. This diplomatic disaster and conspicuous failure of foreign policy was self-inflicted, and entirely avoidable. It comes less than a month after the rebuff by 54 African nations over celebration of Africa Day in New Delhi.

Perhaps, it is time to pause and ponder how a “leading power” should conduct its external affairs.

(The author is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator.)

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