Imagine a train accelerating along an S-curve. That is what Indian diplomacy has done. Now, close your eyes and don’t even look at the wreckage as the news comes from the plenary of the Nuclear Suppliers Group meeting in Seoul.

India’s diplomacy and foreign policy has suffered a humiliating defeat.

It was plain to see all along for anyone who is not myopic – and, most certainly, at least from June 9 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi dialled up the Kremlin number – how the denouement of India’s high voltage diplomacy on NSG membership would turn out to be.

The best spin one can give is that Modi’s aides led him up the garden path and left him in a world of make-believe that India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group was just round the corner.

Modi probably found the prospect irresistible that he would be claiming credit in the Indian public opinion for an incredible diplomatic achievement.

Talking tough

To what extent did Modi comprehend the complex issues involved in India’s NSG membership question? We will never get to know.

Despite being a shrewd politician who plans balance sheets with great anticipation, he probably chose to suspend disbelief and allowed himself to be misled by his aides into believing that it boiled down to a bilateral issue between India and China.

Nothing else explains his decision to travel to Tashkent and meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping (whom he hadn’t cared to meet for one full year.)

What gave Modi such confidence to estimate that the Chinese leadership too conducts personalised diplomacy? We do not know.

Suffice it to say, the only plausible explanation is that his aides convinced him that the “tough” policies his government has been pursuing toward China since Xi’s visit in September 2014 would have by now so nicely softened up Beijing that it’d be in a mood to placate India.

Indeed, South Block has been exceptionally nasty in its China policies through the past year and a half. Consider the sample list below:

  • The “regime change” in Sri Lanka;
  • The Joint Vision Statement on Asia-Pacific (co-authored by Modi and President Barack Obama);
  • Modi’s dalliances with Japan’s Shinzo Abe;
  • Modi’s celebrated lecturing to Xi on Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi;
  • “Capacity building” of Vietnam’s armed forces;
  • The mud-slinging over Mohammed Azhar’s inclusion in UN watch list;
  • Expansion of Malabar Exercises to include Japan;
  • US-India-Japan Trilateral Dialogue at foreign minister level;
  •  “Shangrila Dialogue” to debunk Xi’s One Belt One Road initiative;
  •  Visa to Uighur separatists;
  • Extended deployment of Indian navy ships in South and East China Sea;
  • Threat to supply BrahMos missiles to Vietnam.

There has always been this maverick opinion among India’s “China hands” that “toughness” pays with China. However, South Block’s relentless assault on China’s core interests has proved counterproductive.

China’s attitudes have only hardened. Modi must have tasted it first-hand on Thursday in Tashkent. The mandarins too must have sampled it in Beijing and Seoul.

Colossal diplomatic failure

This colossal diplomatic failure in reading Chinese tea leaves correctly is only to be attributed to the deeply flawed foreign policy that India has been pursuing through the past decade, predicated on a deep-rooted conviction that God is in his heaven and all is well with the world so long as India attends to its “defining partnership of the 21st century” with the United States.

Chickens have come home to roost, finally. Modi had a wonderful opportunity to make a clean break from India’s “unipolar predicament” when he became prime minister two years ago. But, alas, he not only blew it but, perhaps, has himself become its victim.

True, there has been an occasional flickering of new thinking in Modi’s words and actions, but it has become increasingly rare in recent times and on the whole he has come to appear like an ineffectual statesman beating his wings in vain in the void.

The mandarins, it appears, set his compass and make him believe he does it. However, the buck ultimately stops with him. The mandarins are his trusted personnel, after all.

Don’t blame them if the Americans work through them to get at his government’s foreign policies. It is he who has allowed that to happen – and, he had a choice not to let it come to this pass.

The recent gleeful statements from Islamabad while surveying the debris of our NSG campaign should be an eye-opener as regards the co-relation of forces in the emergent world order.

The United States may be the only superpower on the planet – and we all respect it (including Russia’s President Vladimir Putin) – but it is sheer naiveté to conclude that Washington controls the international system. The diffusion of power and influence is such today that any sensible country would pursue a multi-vector, non-aligned foreign policy.

The real question

India’s touching faith in America’s power is costing us heavily. The NSG imbroglio testifies to it. How easy it ultimately proved for Pakistan – all that was needed was for Sartaj Aziz to make a few phone calls – to scotch India’s NSG bid!

The US has brilliantly succeeded in turning the NSG issue into a Sino-Indian tangle. India’s NSG membership was originally an American suggestion (which Obama made in 2010).

But Washington since abdicated its responsibility and has left it to the Indian sherpa to climb the mountain.

The heart of the matter is that the NSG issue is not a matter concerning India’s relations with China and/or Pakistan. Quintessentially, it is about the NSG itself.

If the situation surrounding the NSG has vastly changed through the past four decades (from the time Washington conceived the group as part of its containment strategy against nuclear India), it should be up to the Obama administration to rewrite the ground rules.

Conceivably, China, which became an NSG member only in 2004, will cooperate with any enterprise by the group’s founder to make it contemporaneous. So will Ireland, Brazil, Switzerland, New Zealand, Turkey, South Africa, et cetera.

The sensible thing will be to admit all non-NPT nuclear powers without exception.

India should realize as a mature country that it is in its own medium and long term interests that Pakistan also becomes a member of the NSG.

But then, India and the US’ predicament is understandable. For, if Pakistan too becomes an NSG member, a difficult question arises: What was the Indo-US nuclear deal of 2008 really all about – other than to promote US’s arms exports to India?

Clearly, it is all baloney that the 2008 nuclear deal conferred on India an international recognition as nuclear weapon state. No such thing really happened – except in our own fevered imagination.

Countries such as Brazil, South Africa and Turkey are “threshold” nuclear states. The US put the fear of god into them to either coerce them into turning away from the path of weaponisation or to “denuclearise”.

Unsurprisingly, it is humiliating for them today to be treated like second-class citizens when their track record in nuclear non-proliferation is as good or even better than India’s.

By our clumsy attempt to gatecrash into the NSG plenary in Seoul, we foolishly displayed our hubris, and in the process we got duly ticked off. The miserable spectacle does no good to our country’s image as a claimant to permanent membership of the UN Security Council.