Why India's Manic Quest for Membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group is Misplaced

The NSG's 2008 waiver made India unique. By pleading to be let into the NSG now, we have handed Pakistan the hyphen to us which that waiver had removed.

Narendra Modi and Barack Obama at the White House, June 2016. Credit: PTI

Narendra Modi and Barack Obama at the White House, June 2016. Credit: PTI

Years ago, I was told about a pathshala started by a revered sage, who demanded the undivided attention of his students. One day a cat arrived, distracting the boys, so the teacher asked them to tie it to a post. That became a daily nuisance; the cat, and later its progeny, would turn up with the children and had to be tethered before the master took his classes. By the time the teacher died, decades later, no one remembered why the cat was tied up. It is now a ritual, commanded by the guru, conducted to make the school day auspicious: a cat must be tied to the railings, or classes cannot begin. The distraction is now the objective, the impediment is the goal.

Something very like this pious confusion drives India’s manic quest for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the Wassenaar Arrangement and Australia Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) already tied to our post.

It is, we are told, such a strategic imperative to be on the NSG that the prime minister did detours to Switzerland and Mexico to bend ears. But what will membership bring us? For years, we tried to evade the restrictions that the NSG and its cohorts cast on India, but aligned our export restrictions on dual-use chemicals fairly closely to the Australia Group’s, often over the strident objections of our firms. Strategic autonomy for us meant being able to take our own decisions, instead of being dragooned into them as a member of cabals set up to deny technologies, not to promote trade in them.

Being a member of any of these groups does not mean preferential or assured access to technologies and materials we do not have; decisions to sell are taken in each case by the country concerned, and depend on other factors. It does mean that India cannot export to any country, whether a member of these groups or not, any item that their guidelines do not permit. Membership therefore is a constraint, the raison d’être of the groups being to ensure that no country undercuts members by selling what they cannot.

If India has items to sell that threaten their monopolies, the groups will cajole or coerce us to join them. India would not have to beg around the world, asking for membership as a favour, though, as Ukraine found in the 1990s when the United States pressed it to join the MTCR, that is how it would be presented. Ukraine thought membership would let it develop its missile industry, get it access to technologies it did not have and open up markets. The US wanted to ensure Ukraine was hobbled. Kiev has found that membership is the cat’s whiskers. It has nothing else to show for it.

As a founding member of the NSG, set up specifically to thwart India’s nuclear programme, the US could not enter into its deal with us unless the group agreed. The waiver won from the NSG in 2008 permits its members to “transfer trigger list items and/or related technology” as well as “nuclear-related dual-use equipment, materials, software, and related technology to India for peaceful purposes and for use in IAEA-safeguarded civil nuclear facilities”. Bars on export of nuclear materials and technology to India have been removed; the waiver was not specific to the US-India deal, nor limited in time. Membership of the NSG gives us nothing more on imports, and there is no visible queue to buy nuclear technology from India. It’s not even a cat we are trying to catch, but a chimera.

Perhaps we should recall how these cats came into our lives. In 2006, non-proliferation ayatollahs in the US, alarmed by the Bush Administration’s ardour on the nuclear deal, rushed through the “United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006” (known as the Hyde Act), which laid down conditions that India had to meet, and which the US president had to certify to Congress that it had met, before an agreement could be consummated.

The president’s submissions to Congress had to include:

“A description of the steps that India is taking to secure materials and technology applicable for the development, acquisition, or manufacture of weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver such weapons through the application of comprehensive export control legislation and regulations, and through harmonisation with and adherence to MTCR, NSG, Australia Group, and Wassenaar Arrangement guidelines, compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540, and participation in the Proliferation Security Initiative.” (emphasis added)

India was forced to adhere to the guidelines of these four groups, not because we wished to, or because it was the first step towards a membership we thought strategically vital for us, but because we had no option: if we wanted the nuclear deal from the US, which was a real gain, adhering to the guidelines of these groups, and therefore being bound by their restrictions, were the cats that had to be tied up. After doing the minimum necessary to get the deal it wanted, the last government rested on its laurels and its oars, seeing membership as an encumbrance, not an enticement.

There is an outcast’s pathology in our current desperation to join the groups, not because we need them but because we are not needed. The NSG waiver made India unique. All we have done, pleading to be let into the NSG now, is to drag ourselves down and tie ourselves again to Pakistan, handing it the hyphen to us which the waiver removed.  And let us have none of this nonsense about the NSG being the nuclear high table, which India must clamber onto to cement its status as one of the self-proclaimed coparceners of this century. This is a table that has around it, among others, Belarus, Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, Iceland, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Serbia, Slovakia and Slovenia. All worthy countries, all friends of India, but none whose names would spring to mind as the leaders of the world. They are there, as India would be, to make sure no crumbs slip from the table.

When the US assures us that it believes India qualifies for membership of these groups, as it did again in the joint statement in June this year, it is offering us the entrecôte in a Barmecide feast. If the NSG plenary on June 24 ends in a whimper, and the remover of obstacles still has trouble peeling mandarins, the lamentations here will be heart-rending, but it will not be the end of the world. Xi Jinping is not really Macavity the Mystery Cat, the Napoleon of Crime. Obama, though, might be Mistoffelees. But let these cats be.