Reams have been written about Narendra Modi’s whirlwind bilateral engagements with several Heads of States either visiting India or Modi himself visiting several countries in a short span since taking office in May 2014.
But are these just trade and Investments garnering trips? Is there more to his “subtle diplomacy”? Is there substance in Modi’s efforts to end India’s Nuclear Trishanku status (Forever in limbo) utilizing his pet “Make in India” campaign? Let’s explore!
As far as nuclear knowhow is concerned, the world is divided into haves (US, Russia, Britain, France and China) and the have-nots (the rest of the world). The entire framework of Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was created to keep this distinction intact.
However, India with as much capability as France, China or Britain continues to be clubbed with the “have-nots”. The 1998 nuclear tests and subsequent changes in geopolitics have put a question mark on India being bracketed as a “have-not”. The ringleader in the “haves” club is The United States of America which needs to decide if India deserves to enter the “haves” club. France has continually supported this demand but China and the non-proliferation ayatollahs in the West (each for their own reasons) are completely opposed to it. Due to serious opposition from these factions, making India as the sixth “have” is consistently ruled out.
The Trishanku Predicament
India cannot be isolated forever. With a stable democracy and a disciplined first world military, it cannot be left alone in this day and age. This realization has led to serious engagement of India by The United States with the ultimate goal to ensure that India would not conduct another round of tests that would not only destabilize the world but also encourage a chain reactions of tests and counter tests from haves and have-nots!! India always wanted to engage with the “haves” but as a pre-condition wanted a complete removal of restrictions first. This is the crux of the Indo-US nuclear deal. This in some way was the backdoor entry (the classic Trishanku option) offered to India but not as part of the NPT regime.
However, even before India went ahead with the above deal, it was deemed inevitable by some in the West that India would become the sixth nuclear “have”, one way or the other. This realization led to multiple snags since the signing of the Indo-US nuclear deal.
Whose Game is it anyway?
India went ahead to include the much debated liability clause but insisted on non-negotiation of reprocessing rights (which makes it very difficult to take away the fuel and reactors in case India tests weapons again). While the West waited for the removal of these liability clauses, India went ahead and procured Russian reactors for its Tamil Nadu based Kudankulam nuclear power plant.
This made it increasingly difficult for the United States to cajole or pressure India into eventually signing a CTBT type treaty. The United States wanted (at that time) to create some sort of a short term stoppage to India’s juggernaut while India’s game was to continuously buy reactors along with fuel from all over the world to ensure that the costs of rolling back India’s nuclear program would eventually prove to be extremely costly to the point of impossibility. A very nice cat and mouse game ensued!
The West had a firm understanding that the Indian indigenous nuclear technology was advancing as the years went by and trying to stifle India would end up being a case of diminishing returns. There also exists a lot of pressure on the USA from Canada, Australia and France to allow them to trade with India for financial reasons until the time India really needed those technologies for the short term.
Entry of Narendra Modi as Negotiator in Chief
While there was progress on removing six of India's entities from Japan's end-user restrictions, there was an impasse over civil nuclear co-operation. If not fixed, this impasse had the potential to erode confidence in the strategic partnership. India had given ample recognition to the sensitivity of nuclear non-proliferation in Japan and Modi personally reached out in public to underscore India's commitment to world peace. Japan also needed to understand that India couldn’t accept conditionality’s beyond the framework of the Nuclear Suppliers Group waiver it secured in 2008, with Japan's support, and the parameters set in the India-US civil nuclear accord.
What this meant was that Japan would only budge when others budge and hence Modi’s job of breaking the Trishanku stranglehold could not be started at that time (with Japan atleast). When everyone in the world sells to India, Japan would also sell but the bottom line for India was to get America on board first.
By The United States of America:
The stagnated talks, since the time when India passed stringent liability clauses, were resumed with the visit of Narendra Modi to the United States. In the midst of all the pomp and show that usually accompanies Indo-US visits, there was a slight movement when Modi showed extra interest to break the ice. Not much was accomplished during the visit other than certain confidence building measures.
The real ice breaker came during President Obama’s visit as the chief guest at India’s Republic Day on Jan 26th 2015. India showed enormous flexibility on the liability clauses and created a Government backed insurance pool to cover the liability clauses. The United States too for its part moved away from its rigidity on tracking of the fuel and on reprocessing rights.
That singular move of flexibility from both parties enabled India to get legitimacy in the market for buying fuel and procuring reactors from France, Australia and Canada.
Australia was more than eager to sell Uranium but was waiting on India’s deal with The United States. This deal with India also helped end lingering mistrust between the former British colonies, who shared just about AUD 15 billion in annual trade, a fraction of Australia’s roughly AUD 150 billion trade with China. Talks towards the Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement began two years ago after Australia lifted a long-standing ban on selling uranium to energy-starved India but movement to finalize only happened under Modi.
With Sri Lanka & South Korea
India also negotiated with South Korea for fuel And during Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka, India sealed a nuclear energy pact with Sri Lanka, its first breakthrough with the new government where China had been building ports and highways in a diplomatic push in recent years. Under this deal, India would help Sri Lanka build its nuclear energy infrastructure, including training of personnel.
Viva La France
Rafale is certainly a great 4th gen fighter jet from Dassault but the whole deal was massively expensive to begin with and rigged with international red tape. When it comes to Transfer of Technology (TOT), no one really transfers engine technology, avionics or design. It is mostly the process and assembly that gets transferred.
And the bottom line was that India could just buy any 4th gen aircraft off the shelf and not worry too much about TOT anymore. Its agencies were increasingly becoming self-reliant in aircraft design and manufacturing. In a couple of years, India wouldn’t really need a Rafale since it would have a 5th gen FGFA fighter from Russia and the option of increasing the number of SU-30MKIs or upgrading the LCA to Mark-II with Israeli assistance.
Keeping all this in the background, Modi decided to utilize the mammoth Rafale deal as a hedge to give his Operation Exit Trishanku an aggressive push. Modi ensured that the French understood that the larger Rafale deal was still possible if and only if France moved fast on the sale of Areva nuclear reactors. As an act of good faith, Modi placed an order for 36 aircraft to be manufactured in France and delivered to India under a tight deadline but at the same time making sure that France understood that dealing with India in a direct and transparent manner would result in a windfall for its sagging military aviation industry in the long haul.
While Modi was in Germany, a friendly yet cautionary message was given to France. After Modi landed in Germany, the Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar cancelled the original MMRCA deal for 126 Rafales. What that meant was that if France didn’t deliver on the nuclear reactors, India’s Rafale purchase would stop at 36. India still had the option of buying Typhoons with all kinds of TOT’s from Germany or Grippen from Sweden or the Eurofighter. Business was not guaranteed unless it was a mutually respectful two way street!
France got another gentle push after Modi’s Canada visit. India signed the deal with Canada to buy uranium for France’s Areva reactors. The message to France was clear “come on guys, don’t waste time on cold war intricacies, deliver the reactors and the fuel” and give a boost to your economies. This deal also incentivized Canada to push France to supply the reactors so that Canadian fuel could be sold in tandem with the reactors!!
Is this India’s Modified Foreign Policy? Will Modi deliver India to its rightful place?
So while getting FDI or with the Make in India push, the endeavor to get India out of the nuclear apartheid or Trishanku state is not lost on Modi. In fact, it got an aggressive push by leveraging his growing global stature, India’s steady economic and military footprint and the undeniable right of 1.2 billion people on earth to clean and green energy. Modi’s speech in Toronto did give a sly preview of his foreign policy doctrine.
Oh by the way, when Modi visits Russia soon, we can watch a slew of military and energy security deals being negotiated. The ball is now clearly in the courts of western countries. Either do business with India which is extending an open hand of friendship or watch India progress faster than ever before from the sidelines.
By: Ramana Muppalla