External Affairs

Modi Government Not Tilting Towards United States, Officials Say

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 8. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 8. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: Pushing back against criticism that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is locking India into a tighter strategic embrace with the United States, senior officials insist that his recent visit to the US and four other countries  demonstrated a more independent, assertive role for Indian foreign policy.

A day after Modi returned from his five-nation, six-day day trip – the highlight of which was his seventh meeting with US President Barack Obama in two years – officials here sought to nudge the narrative in the ‘right’ direction, away from concerns that India was drawing deeper into the US camp and against China.

And while they acknowledged that the US has been doing its bit to get India into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, Indian officials acknowledge that all the dominoes are still not in a straight line.

First leg

Sources say the prime minister’s stops in Herat and Qatar were, in fact, a reflection of the government’s ‘sharper activism’ to India’s west.

Modi’s second visit to Afghanistan in the space of four months – on both occasions he inaugurated long-in-gestation development projects – have created a “distinct profile” for India, in contrast to Pakistan, they argued.

Similarly, the visit to Qatar – an “exceptional player” in the region – is being projected as part of India’s new outreach to the region, linking back to visits the prime minister and president have made recently to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel. Before 2014, there wasn’t a coherent policy to woo West Asia, the sources asserted.

Noting that in his speech to the joint meeting of the US Congress, Modi engaged in plainspeaking – that India and the United States would have differences in the future, these should not be seen as a roadblock – the sources said that one of the reasons New Delhi sought to reach out to Congress was because there was a “broader constituency” beyond President Obama, now in his last year in office. Also, it was important to speak directly to Congress, especially when the US was perhaps more inward-looking than ever before, the sources added.

Defence agreement

The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, whose text was finalised on the eve of the US-India summit, is also not as geo-politically important as it being projected, the sources insisted. They described the proposed pact – the text of which is not yet in the public domain – as primarily a facilitatory arrangement which has a “finite applicability”, limited to certain situations like exercise, training and disaster relief.

The officials presented Modi’s two stops immediately before and after Washington as yet another demonstration of India being proactive: Switzerland and Mexico had been added to the itinerary largely with the intent to lobby for the country’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. This was a demonstration of India making a point that it was capable of lifting its own weight, that it was not entirely dependent on the US to do the lion’s share of the legwork for the NSG campaign, the sources asserted.

NDA making up for ‘lost time’ on NSG

They presented India’s move for MTCR and NSG membership as “making up for lost time”. The UPA government’s failure to pursue this campaign led to other countries losing interest in pursuing the matter or dropping support.

Asked for their assessment of how the NSG meeting at Vienna on June 9 had gone, the sources said a “large number” of the group’s 48 members had “responded well” to India’s membership, but that there were still a number of ‘hold-outs’ – officials said the numbers were in single and not double digits – with lingering concerns.

From New Delhi’s perspective, the outcome of the upcoming June 20 Seoul meeting of the NSG is still “open-ended” – the mood is cautious, rather than being confident.

The debate within the NSG has been to create a ‘process’ for non-NPT countries to accede to the cartel, which was formed after India’s 1974 ‘peaceful’ nuclear test. The belief here is that the link some countries are making between the NPT and NSG is an ‘emotional’ one. India could “persuade” them to change their view by pointing out that all the commitments undertaken by India when the NSG exempted the country from its restrictive export guidelines in 2008 have been met, the sources said.

On June 3, US secretary of state of John Kerry had made a direct, written plea to NSG members to not block the consensus on India’s membership. He indicated that New Delhi was also not averse to the NSG creating criteria for new members. “With respect to other possible new members of the NSG, Indian officials have stated that India would take a merit-based approach to such applications and would not be influenced by extraneous regional issues,” Kerry wrote, according to Bloomberg.

Echoing the essence of Kerry’s letter, sources here said that the criteria issue raised by certain countries is not opposed by India, per se. If there were questions on whether applicant countries have met export control regulations, separation of civil nuclear from military programs, adherence to an additional protocol or their past record, then India would be able to pass them with flying colours.

Hopeful on China

The sources also said China’s position is more ambiguous than that perceived from reading Indian media columns. The sliver of hope in New Delhi is apparently due to the fact that China has not yet categorically stated – either publicly or behind closed doors – that it will reject India’s membership, even if the Chinese foreign ministry has been insisting on adherence to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) as a key criterion for membership.

The ‘black and white’ depiction of China being the sole adversary to India becoming an NSG member has not been helpful, the sources added.

It was pointed out that while India has been talking of “freedom of navigation” at various fora, including the recent Modi visit to US, New Delhi has also found common ground with China. The Indian position on warships entering a country’s exclusive economic zone is much closer to Beijing than to the US, the sources noted.