Posted on 1-July-2016
In the second half of the last month two issues occupied Indian commentators in news media and elsewhere more than any others. One of these was India's application to join the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG), initially set up as a nuclear non-proliferation measure after India's nuclear test of 1974. The second was the British vote in favour of leaving the European Union. That among myriad other political, social and economic problems of great import facing India, these two questions should have evoked so much interest appears in retrospect strange, to say the least. That the British vote to leave should have come as such a great surprise to so many in India is itself a matter of surprise. First of all, all the polls till actual voting day had predicted a close decision. Secondly, ever since the first moves towards European integration in the form of the European Coal and Steel Community, the United Kingdom's attitude towards European integration has been ambivalent, with the country's political leadership having from time to time to deal with the never dying tribe of British Eurosceptics. Without going too deeply into the history of British entry and continued membership of the European Economic Community/ European Community/European Union, it should be enough to mention just two episodes. In 1975, Harold Wilson faced a rebellion in his Labour Party over the country's continued membership of the European Community which he solved by organising a referendum at which the people of the United Kingdom voted to stay. Before the 2015 general election, David Cameron likewise faced a rebellion in the Conservative Party which he solved by promising to hold a referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union in 2017 if the Conservative Party was returned to power in 2015. Having won the election last year he decided to advance the referendum to June this year and the vote was against staying. But whether the vote was for or against staying the UK gave the impression of being a reluctant member forever negotiating and renegotiating the terms of its membership. Given this background, the no vote in this referendum was always as likely as not.
There is no doubt that the British vote is going to set in motion a number of important changes in Europe and in the United Kingdom itself. But all this will take at least 27 months to work itself out. Until such time as the negotiations under article 50 of the Lisbon treaty are completed the United Kingdom will continue to have all the rights and obligations of a regular member which means that the economic and commercial relations between the United Kingdom and the world outside, including India, can continue under existing arrangements. It will be necessary for those in government who are in charge of managing the economy or those firms or individuals with investments or trading activities in the UK to keep an eye on the negotiations between the UK and the EU or to keep an eye on developments that might affect the unity of the United Kingdom itself. It was necessary likewise for the Indian Finance minister to say what was necessary to calm down the markets. But there is no reason why the British vote should have attracted more notice in India than one of interested and informed curiosity. For the present the British vote is a British, European and American problem, not India's.
India's membership of the Nuclear Suppliers' Group is by contrast of direct concern to India. The question really is about the importance of this membership for the country. In 2008 India was given a waiver to the NSG rules which meant that India would have access to nuclear material--mainly uranium--and nuclear technology for its civilian nuclear programme even though India was not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). In 2011, the NSG rules were amended so that in any event non signatories to the NPT would be denied access to enrichment and reprocessing technologies and thus the scope of the 2008 waiver got restricted. In spite of all this India did try to gain entry into the Group and expected that a positive decision would come its way in the Group's plenary meeting in Seoul on 23rd and 24th June. That did not happen. People inside government would know best why things turned out the way they did but two things are clear: Government of India failed to gauge the strength with which the Chinese and a few others held the view that it was necessary first of all to define the criteria for the admission of non-signatories of the NPT to the group and secondly despite what the Government's spin doctors say this was a public rebuff for India not dissimilar to India's failure to garner more than some forty-two votes in the UN General Assembly for a non-permanent seat in the Security Council in 1996, an election which Japan won handsomely. In diplomacy it is easier for a country to achieve its goals if it is perceived as wielding wide influence: the converse is even more true--the emperor cannot afford to appear too often to be without clothes. That is why wisdom lies in avoiding public rebuffs of the kind that has come from Seoul now and came from the UN General Assembly in 1996.
Since India's approach to the NSG and the promises of support to India made by the Presidents of Switzerland, Mexico and the USA were written up so much, after the Seoul meeting reams of paper and hours of television time have been expended on analysing what happened in Seoul and its consequences. Highly emotive expressions like "backstabbing by China" have been used and calls for retaliation have been made, forgetting that managing India's relations with China is much more important than emotional anti-Chinese outbursts. In all this one little fact has been forgotten about: India's refusal to sign the NPT means a readiness to go it alone on nuclear matters and that is what India did from 1974 to 2008 when India signed the Civilian Nuclear Agreement with the USA and got the 2008 waiver from the NSG. These two help India import various necessary supplies and technology for its civilian nuclear programme. Why despite all this India decided to pursue the goal of an NSG membership is an enigma the solution to which is known only to those within the government. For the people outside this is a peripheral question.
There are real problems of society, economy and politics of crucial importance that ought to attract much greater attention from the media and the commentariat but do not. A short list of these problems should include: water management, rural distress, creaky infrastructure, woeful state of primary and secondary, even Higher education, inter-caste and interreligious tensions, widespread abject poverty and malnutrition, and the enfeeblement of political opposition to misrule and misgovernance. Compared to these, membership of the NSG is of minor importance. Consequences of Britain's departure from the EU are of even less immediate importance. But it is futile to look for depth in the Indian news media in its present state.