February 15, 2020
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A Lose-Lose Atomic Gamble

Is Modi too prone to believe his own hype to be a true pragmatist? Are his foreign policy mandarins too much in awe to tender frank advice?

A Lose-Lose Atomic Gamble
Tashkent Days
Modi with the presidents of Tajikistan and China
Photograph by Alamy
A Lose-Lose Atomic Gamble

In Seoul, India has suffered the diplomatic equivalent of a second defeat at the hands of China after the 1962 border war. The surprise is that prime minister Narendra Modi, who has otherwise shown some sure-footedness in promoting the country’s foreign policy interests amid his zest for international travel, should have junked all canons of diplomacy to invite this stinging public snub from Beijing. Indeed, the manner of India’s quest for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) surpasses logic. The country was due to become a member of the missile technology regime, which it became, and yet the obsession with the NSG was such that New Delhi pulled out all the stops.

India’s foreign secretary, S. Jaishankar, was despatched to Beijing to plead with the Chinese. Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, whose contribution to policymaking remains a mystery, was asked to hold a press conference in Delhi to put the kindest construct on the Chinese stance. Yet the res­ponse from Beijing was plain. The NSG was not on the Seoul meeting agenda.

Why the Chinese leadership adopted this attitude is no mystery. It has been building a special relationship with Pakistan for its own reasons in terms of reviving the modern version of the old Silk Route and for hemming India in. And the Pakistanis, with their innate belief in being New Delhi’s equal in all respects, were opposed to India’s NSG membership. Even before India’s final humiliation, the Pakistanis were gloating over their neighbour’s predicament.

Modi still persisted with his NSG obsession. He ­totally disregarded the wise canon of diplomacy that one does not engage with a political adversary at the highest level to plead openly for a cause unless the chances are more than even. In his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, he pleaded his country’s cause. More amazingly, the official Indian statement put out after the meeting said Modi had asked his interlocutor to be fair. Why should China’s, or any country’s, foreign policy be determined by fairness as the main criterion?

The prime minister still did not see the writing on the wall. Jaishankar was sent to Seoul to lobby for New Delhi’s hopeless cause. The result was a foregone conclusion. China blocked India’s bid and received support from a few countries. And to underline New Delhi’s humiliation, a Chinese official put it out during finance minister Arun Jaitley’s visit to Beijing coinciding with the Indian debacle that Sino-Indian relations would not be affected by Beijing blackballing India.

Modi’s response thus far has been to give his first extensive television interview to Times Now in order to suggest that things are in order in the field of foreign policy. That he dealt with China “eye to eye” was his weak defence and he was simply following the policy of the preceding government. This is in keeping with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s pattern that when things go wrong, it is the fault of the Congress dispensation. When he scores a goal, it is entirely due to his flair and sagacity.

However, India’s Himalayan blunder in Seoul has very serious ramifications for the content and conduct of Indian foreign policy. We must analyse how things on NSG went so wrong that there were no checks to the headlong blunder that led to the country’s humiliation.

Jaishankar was Modi’s choice as foreign secretary. He is a fine and intelligent officer who has served in several diplomatic posts with distinction and comes from the enviable lineage of India’s first modern geopolitical guru, K. Subrahmanyam.

But, did Jaishankar warn his boss that he was ­treading a dangerous, risk-laden path by raising the country’s NSG bid to fever pitch, given Chinese opposition? If so, was his advice disregarded? Or are senior officers in the ­foreign office in such awe of the prime minister that they do not open their mouths? The irony, of course, is that India has a waiver from the NSG, thanks to the Indo-US nuclear agreement signed during Manmohan Singh’s time.

An anti-establishment mood is gaining ground in many countries in the West, and that makes it more ­important to draw the ­correct lessons from the NSG humiliation.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the maker of modern democratic India, was foreign minister for a long time. True, he made mistakes in relation to China and Kashmir. But he built newly-independent India’s foreign policy on the basis of a profound study of the country’s history and civilisation, as well as trends in the world influencing the then so-called Third World. He espoused non-alignment because the country was weak militarily and in a world split between the East and the West by the Cold War, non-alignment was the best option.

Nehru failed on China because he did not anticipate Mao’s determination to teach India a lesson and New Delhi was left naked, totally unprepared for a major mil­itary assault on that scale. India’s defeat was a ­foregone ­con­clusion. We are familiar with the events that ­followed and Nehru never fully recovered from the Indian debacle before his death.

Modi, of course, started his term as prime minister from a totally different base. He joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) at an early age and was fed a worldview and history of the ­country paradigmatically contrary to Nehru’s. As he himself has acknowledged, he believes in the miracles of ancient India and subscribes to the ­superiority of Hindutva as the philosophical base for running the country.

Even as Gujarat’s chief minister, he had connected to China and Japan because he admired their modernising revolutions and was sold on the mobilising power  of information ­technology. Indeed, he used this technology to telling effect for gaining power and, after winning the 2014 general election, he employed the new revolution in social media to good effect.

What was enviable from Modi’s vantage was that Twitter and Facebook gave him an avenue for conveying his thoughts and policies without being subjected to embarrassing questions. He does not believe in holding press conferences, as was the practice of his predecessors or other democratic leaders around the world. His interview to Arnab Goswami of Times Now is a unique event, although it has not been revealed whether there was a prior understanding to soft-pedal the ­diplomatic debacle. In any case, Modi felt it necessary to present a picture of his being fully in charge.

Given the explosive nature of the world and the anti-establishment mood gaining ground in so many countries in the developed West, it is important to draw the correct lessons from the humiliation the country has suffered and resist from consoling the national hurt by suggesting that India has a chance of becoming an NSG ­member by the end of the year. Even if that were to occur, the cost would have been ­totally out of proportion to the reward.

Rather, the effort should be to draw the correct lesson by building an atmosphere that encourages expression of frank views by policy mandarins in the precincts of the foreign office. Major foreign policy issues must first be examined by experts before Modi decides to make a song and dance about a new initiative.

Modi has reached his present position because he is a pragmatist. He is also decisive, but does his NSG gamble show that he is also a bit of a gambler?

(S. Nihal Singh is former editor of The Statesman, The Indian Express and Khaleej Times)

Slide Show

The formation of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was triggered by the United States’ discomfort with the first nuclear explosion by India in Pokhran, 1974. The idea was to exercise strict control over  the supply of materials required for developing nuclear weapons. In 1992, the alleged clandestine nuclear weapons programme of Iraq led the NSG to extend its restrictions to materials with both nuclear and non-nuclear uses.

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