India’s delayed arrival at the nuclear high table


Mint, New Delhi
SINCE India tested its first nuclear device in 1974, it has largely remained outside the global non-proliferation narrative. The export control regimes formed as a part of the global effort to curb proliferation were either a response to India’s alleged proliferation or used to target India’s nuclear ambitions. However, the tag of “perennial outlier” is now fast disappearing under the stewardship of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

With no objections coming up against the text for membership of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), India is now set to become the 35th member of one of the four major export control regimes. Hectic diplomatic parleys are under way to ensure India’s entry into another, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). NSG, however, will be far more difficult a nut to crack than MTCR because of the presence of China in the former. Beijing has cited India’s refusal to sign The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as a reason to oppose India’s membership of the NSG. That Beijing’s stance is without a vestige of moral authority—given its own history of NPT violations—is also well known. Meanwhile, China has prodded Pakistan to apply for NSG membership despite it being a non-signatory to the NPT. And as W.P.S. Sidhu elaborated in Mint, NPT is no prerequisite to apply for NSG membership.

MTCR and NSG, along with the Australia Group and the Wassenaar Arrangement, aim to restrict the proliferation of items that could lead to the spread of, among others, weapons of mass destruction and chemical and biological weapons. India has taken a number of steps to align its export regulations with what these regimes specify. It has now cracked MTCR and already fulfills all the criteria for NSG. And as Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan and Arka Biswas have illustrated in a recent working paper, India has made significant progress in harmonizing its Special Chemicals, Organisms, Materials, Equipment and Technology (SCOMET) export list with the control lists of the Australia Group and the Wassenaar Arrangement.

India has also committed to adhering to future NSG guidelines despite not being a member. It is a proponent for finalizing a verifiable and non-discriminatory Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. In addition, India has been a consistent votary of non-discriminatory disarmament efforts—one of the three pillars of non-proliferation regimes, along with civil nuclear cooperation and non-proliferation itself. But it will be foolhardy to even attempt segregating the technical from the political. A change in the global nuclear order, or an attempt toward it, is merely a reflection of alteration in geopolitical context.

China’s opposition to India’s membership of NSG, however hypocritical it may seem, is essentially informed by a certain geopolitical understanding of South Asia. China had similarly attempted to block India’s waiver from NSG in 2008 and only relented, reportedly, after a telephone call by then US President George W. Bush to former Chinese President Hu Jintao. Bush’s decision to go ahead with the nuclear deal with India was also based on a certain worldview. That the most significant results of the nuclear deal were not realized in civil nuclear cooperation but in a defense partnership is quite revealing.

The enmeshing of the politics of non-proliferation with activism for non-proliferation is no recent phenomenon, either. The very fact that non-proliferation became the topmost concern of the nuclear “haves,” often at the expense of civil nuclear cooperation and disarmament, was itself a political outcome. And if the support for non-proliferation has declined in the US over the last decade, it is because—as A. Vinod Kumar puts it in his book, India and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime—”political common sense in America is beginning to question the non-proliferation theology that emerged out of the triumphal unipolar moment.”

However, India cannot just blame the self-centered politics of the US and other nuclear weapons states of the NPT. New Delhi made several mistakes that contributed to India becoming a nuclear pariah—a de facto status that ended with the US-India nuclear deal.

Take, for instance, India’s decision to call the 1974 test a “peaceful nuclear explosion” or the assumption—from Jawaharlal Nehru to Rajiv Gandhi—that rhetorical calls for disarmament can provide New Delhi with an escape route from a nuclear trap with its hostile neighbors.

Both Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh learned from those mistakes and grabbed the chances that were available to them to mainstream India in the global nuclear order.
Modi is building on their efforts with much more energy than either of the two could show.

Should India aggressively push for inclusion in all the major export control regimes? Tell us at views@livemint.com.



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