India’s thwarted NSG membership bid is setback, not 'diplomatic failure'

Should India learn from China how to live with diplomatic disappointments? Despite its efforts since 2004, China has not been able to become a member of Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a nonproliferation regime that India became a party to on 27 June. The Chinese foreign ministry has criticised how the MTCR has compromised its principles by admitting India. China’s official English daily Global Times has acknowledged that “MTCR for India was a setback for China”. But then, the paper says, “The Chinese have become more mature in dealing with these setbacks caused by international relations”.

In contrast, just see how the Congress leader and former union minister, Kapil Sibal, has announced that his party will raise in the forthcoming monsoon session of Parliament the issue India’s failure in entering the 48-nation Nuclear Supply Group (NSG), thanks to the relentless opposition from China, in its just concluded plenary meeting in Seoul. What is more, other critics have gone one step forward, and this is unprecedented, in naming individual officials (foreign secretary S Jaishankar and national security advisor Ajit Doval) for this “fiasco” and suggesting actions against them.

How to define a “diplomatic failure”? For having a proper perspective, the question needs to be seen in three ways. First, whether the “failure” is the reflection of the inadequacy of India’s overall foreign policy? Secondly, whether the “failure” is the first of its kind in Indian diplomatic history? And thirdly, whether it is a “failure” in true sense of the term?

It is indeed rare to find any country achieving cent percent success in its foreign policy objectives through diplomacy. In fact, the very art of the diplomacy presupposes that nations have to negotiate which is often protracted and makes you make compromises. And in compromises, you take some and give some. In this sense, the effectiveness of diplomacy means how near you reach your ultimate national objective without coercion (including war).

In India’s case we have seen how despite Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s best efforts to befriend China, the northern neighbour attacked the country in 1962. Similarly, we have seen how despite Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s historic trip to Lahore, Pakistan attacked Kargil in 1999. However, despite these setbacks, the fact remains that overall the Indian diplomats and the political leaderships have made the country proud in the comity of nations.

 India’s thwarted NSG membership bid is setback, not diplomatic failure

File image of Narendra Modi. Twitter/@MEAIndia

India today has more friends than foes. India is a member of almost all the leading international organisations and arrangements. We have effectively ended our nonproliferation-related isolations following our nuclear explosions in 1974 and 1998. In other words, our overall foreign policy after the end of the Cold War has been on a sound track. There have been certainly some changes in the nuances - unlike the situation in between 1947-91, the post-91 phase has seen India becoming more proactive than reactive to the global developments, and in the process, the country has taken risks without being afraid of failures. India under Manmohan Singh signing the nuclear agreement with the United States is to be seen in this light.

Viewed thus, it is quite natural that in the process of realising your ultimate goal (emerging as a major pole in this multipolar world), you may come across some “setbacks” in reaching some clearly identified sub- goal posts. And that has happened quite a few times in the recent diplomatic history of India. Let me cite some examples.

In 2006, Manmohan Singh officially supported the candidature of Shashi Tharoor, now a Congress MP but then a senior official of the UN, for the post of United Nations Secretary General. His main rival was the eventual winner – the present incumbent - Ban Ki Moon, then South Korea’s foreign minister. India lobbied very hard for Tharoor. Prime Minister Singh sent “special envoys” (former diplomats-Savitri Kunnadi, VK Grover and CR Gharekhan) to various parts of the world for seeking support for Tharoor. However, leading countries like the United States was not convinced of Tharoor’s candidature on the ground that no permanent employee of the UN had ever contested for a post that was essentially a political appointment reflecting the unanimity of all the permanent members of the Security Council and then approved by the General Assembly.

In fact, when Tharoor himself had met the chief US interlocutor, Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns, to seek his support, he was told that he did not have the requisite “political experience for the job” to be backed by the US. This "agitated" Tharoor so much that he was believed to have warned Burns that the refusal to support him “would have an adverse impact on Indo-US ties”. The US protested to this remark diplomatically to then foreign secretary Shyam Saran. Tharoor subsequently had to bow out of the race.

The second example is the decision of the then HD Deve Gowda government to contest for the non-permanent seat in the UN Security council from the Asian region in 1996 against Japan. Indian diplomats lobbied all over the world and the then external affairs minister IK Gujral wrote letters to 90-odd heads of government, “with confidence” that they would be with India in its bid. In fact, after returning from a visit to the UN, Gujral had apparently asserted before the then cabinet secretary TSR Subramaniam that “ Seventy-five votes at least, without any doubt. We may not win in the first round, but we will edge out Japan in the second round. " But, when votes were cast in New York subsequently and the tally was announced, India had secured only 40 votes!

It may also be noted that in 1995 (the United Front regime), India had also cut a sorry figure when the then Lok Sabha Speaker Purno A Sangma lost a bitterly-fought election to Spanish candidate Miguel A Martinez for the presidency of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), the umbrella body for law-makers across the globe. Sangma's defeat came despite our diplomats appealing to the rest of the world on the plank that India was the largest democracy in the world and ought to be given the honour of IPU Presidentship as it was preparing for the celebration of its golden jubilee year of Independence.

If one goes further back, what happened on 2 July, 1972 at Simla of a massive diplomatic setback. When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto came to the Himachal capital as Pakistan’s President , he was representing a “defeated” and “diminished” Pakistan. India, the victor had as many as 93000 Pakistani prisoners of war. India had captured more than 22000 square kilometres of Pakistani territory in Sind, Punjab and Pakistani occupied Kashmir. And yet, Bhutto went back from Shimla as a victor by taking back his POWs and regaining his territories. What did Prime Minister Indira Gandhi get in return for India? She got “a private assurance” from Bhutto that the line of control could gradually be converted into a de jure border. And as the subsequent events proved, he denied that any such promises were made by him. In my considered view, what happened at Shimla in 1972 was a monumental failure of Indian diplomatic strategy.

Viewed against this background, has India’s NSG bid been a diplomatic failure that China and Pakistan say and critics like Sibal agree? The fact of the matter is that India has applied for being a member and the NSG has not approved the application as yet. But more important, India’s application has not been rejected as yet. And as suggested by nearly 40 NSG member- countries, there will be now efforts to start a process towards developing a consensus on how a non-signatory to the NPT can be considered for membership. None other than Rafel Grossi, the chairman of the NSG, told the Hindu , “There was a widespread consensus in Seoul that we need have a process with a serious possibility of making progress”. In fact, as Grossi had told me once, "When India and China can agree on CWC, then why not on NSG?". He is all for India joining the NSG. And now he is playing an important role in building a consensus within the NSG for a possible special plenary later this year on India’s membership.

In other words, as long as India’s application has not been formally rejected, it will be inappropriate to talk of its NSG bid as a diplomatic failure. That the application could not be approved in Seoul itself could at the most be described as a “setback” in the process of getting the NSG approval. A failure would mean the disapproval of the application, which has not been the case.

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Updated Date: Jun 30, 2016 15:36:53 IST