When New Delhi carried out a nuclear test in 1974, the United States led the international community in imposing a set of technology sanctions against India and other new nuclear powers. The idea was to brand these nuclear outliers as nuclear outlaws. These sanctions became institutionalised in national-level sanctions and then international regimes. The sanctions also set India an impossible demand even in civilian nuclear power generation. India was told it could carry out nuclear commerce with the world or it could have nuclear weapons, but it could not have both. Given India has fought wars with only two neighbours and both are nuclear-armed, it kept its arsenal and sacrificed the ability to import nuclear fuel, reactors and technology from the rest of the world.
However, even while in this technology wilderness India carefully adhered to the non-proliferation rules and practices of the countries that were inside the global nuclear tent. Unlike Pakistan, New Delhi kept to the straight and narrow, avoiding any rogue nuclear activities like selling centrifuges to the North Koreas and Libyas of the word. India always held to the view that it deserved to be part of the nuclear haves and that it the sanctions regimes were inherently unfair. The nuclear deal that exempted India from some of these sanctions negotiated with US president, George W. Bush, was a first step to bringing India out of the nuclear cold.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his current visit to the United States, took two and a half major steps to end this long injustice and make India part of the global rules-making system that handles so-called “dual use” technology. One step was the formal entry of India into the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), one of the four discriminatory regimes that looks at ballistic missile knowhow. The second step was the agreement to buy six civil nuclear reactors from the US-Japan firm Westinghouse. This symbolically ended a global boycott of the Indian nuclear market going back over 40 years. The half-step, because it is the first move in what is likely to be protracted diplomatic push, was to formally get the United States to agree to lobby for India to become a full-member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the apex body for the sanctions that were imposed on India. Modi will visit two more countries, Mexico and Switzerland, as part of a concerted push to bring all the group’s members on board.
Becoming a member of these regimes will have many ancillary benefits for India. It will be easier to access technology or work with other countries in a host of technologies relating to the nuclear, defence and high-tech manufacturing sectors. Becoming an MTCR member, for example, makes it easier for India to export its Brahmos cruise missiles. The possibility of India selling certain classes of indigenous nuclear reactors is no longer unlikely. But the greatest satisfaction in all this will be being able to close the door on nearly a half-century of status as a nuclear pariah.