India made a bid for membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group this past week and failed. There has been a chorus of complaints as to why the Narendra Modi government decided to pour so much of its diplomatic energies, even to the point of tossing in the Prime Minister’s own reputation into the fray, into an effort whose outcome was so uncertain.
The answer, in a nutshell, is because the time has come for India to learn to take calculated risks to further its interests.
It was not as if New Delhi did not know that trying to secure membership in this restrictive technology club would be tricky. After all, this was a club whose very origins were anti-Indian, created after the country’s 1974 nuclear tests to punish India and prevent other countries from going down the same path. The diplomats from many of the NSG governments who handle nuclear issues were hostile, believing India got off lightly after the 1998 tests and didn’t deserve the sanctions waiver rammed through the NSG by the George W Bush administration. Indian officials involved in the NSG gave themselves a 60-40 chance of success.
Yet they went ahead and tried.
Indian diplomacy has generally been about playing it safe. Only do stuff that is more or less guaranteed to succeed. This means your strategic horizon shrinks to the area in front of your feet. Your successes are so small, that only Doordarshan will tout them. After six decades of independence, India can claim to have co-founded an anachronistic multilateral organisation of rapidly diminishing utility, the Non-Aligned Movement. After that, the country’s mark on the international system is hard to discern.
In the past, this caution made sense. India’s economy was worth $50 billion when the British left in 1947 and mostly known in foreign magazines as a place to get photographs of famine victims. The years India was not struggling with a balance of payments crisis were the exception. And the country’s international interests were limited to securing foreign aid, imports of subsidised PL480 grain and moralising speeches ignored by all and sundry.
The times have changed. With a two-trillion-dollar economy, globalised industries like pharmaceuticals and software, the perimeters India’s national interests are now smudge marks that blend with those of the rest of the world. Our security interests cover international terrorism, Indian Ocean lanes of communication and servers in central China. There is a new 21st century Indian diaspora built on technology. India has been forced out of its shell by its own successes.Not that such confidence is universally evident in the Modi government’s policies. Its trade policy, for example, is as timorous and fearful as it was 40 years ago.
The country must seek to influence the making of the rules that govern the world, or find its economy and security potentially compromised. Which is why it makes sense to try and get a seat at the high table of organisations like the NSG rather than being satisfied only with being passively accepted by their existing membership. There is always a difference between being allowed to use a restricted parking lot and being on the committee that decided who gets the parking stickers. In world affairs, multiply the impact by about a zillion.
The more complicated the diplomatic goal and the higher the target, the greater the chances of failure. Or to put it another way, when making decisions, the degree of risk is almost always a consequence of the degree of understanding. And nothing is hairier than international relations because of the multiplicity of players, numerous motives and overall opacity. Risk is inevitable because that’s the nature of the beast. Diplomacy minus risk is not diplomacy, it is guided tours and duty-free shopping.
What India has learnt in the past several years is that uncertainty is insufficient a reason for trying, so long as the prize is important enough.
Thus, India joined the Group of Four nations seeking permanent seats at the United Nations Security Council. The G-4 is moribund today, but just the experience led India to realise that among the four it had the strongest candidature. That New Delhi is now so far down an admittedly long and winding road to a permanent seat is, in large part, because it took a plunge into the deep end.
The India-US nuclear deal, for which political obituaries were written every few months, was the most striking example of New Delhi deciding to punch well beyond its weight. It was helped by an unusually supportive US administration. The point is that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh decided it was worth a gamble, and contrary to everyone’s expectations, the dice fell in India’s direction. The greatest benefit of that deal, arguably, was the self-confidence it gave the Indian system. India changed a deeply entrenched international regime in its favour. It taught New Delhi that with sufficient application, it can change global ground realities.
This hardly means a country should go around gate-crashing regimes, making arbitrary demands of governments or generally tossing itself into any conflict or conference that it feels it can get some advantage. Hence terms like “calculated risk” and “cost-benefit analysis”. If one wants to get technical and use the terminology of decision theory, risks are probable outcomes that can be calculated, uncertainties are ones that one cannot. If the latter are overwhelming, it makes more sense to stay in an armchair and contemplate the ceiling.
Arguably, Jawaharlal Nehru’s decisions on handling China in 1962 were based on a huge degree of ignorance of what Beijing was thinking, a huge mass of uncertainty. Indira Gandhi played a much more sensible game in 1971, working to isolate Pakistan and tilting the landscape in New Delhi’s favour until military intervention in Bangladesh was almost guaranteed victory.
As it is written in the Arthashastra, “Before you carry out an action, ask yourself three questions: Why am I doing it? What might be the results? Will I be successful? Only when you have thought deeply and found satisfactory answers to these questions, should you go ahead.” This advice still remains sound, thousands of years later. The work also warns against “fretting about the future” and focusing on what needs to be done in the present.
An all-encompassing fear of failure will translate into a fear of doing anything remotely innovative or forward thinking — the mindset that afflicts bureaucrats and clerks everywhere. Modi, buoyed by his remarkable domestic political strength, seems prepared to take calculated risks in diplomacy — without concern that this may cost him a few points in the opinion polls. This is a trait he seems to share with Indira Gandhi. More to the point, it is a trait that, once institutionalised, is almost a definition of what a great power is all about. Time for the India of today to dare to be different from the India of yesterday.