Clutching at nuclear straws

Print edition : December 05, 1998

As the BJP-led Government lurches from one round of talks to the next, the absence of a coherent doctrine and a security rationale for nuclearisation becomes obvious.


AFTER the seventh round of the Strobe Talbott-Jaswant Singh talks in Rome, it should be starkly obvious that the A.B. Vajpayee Government has no easy way of getting out of the mess in which it finds itself more than six months after it recklessly decided to cross the Nuclear Rubicon. Not only has it manifestly failed to evolve a coherent explanation for that decision; it has no straight, unambiguous answers to a series of questions: What larger goals does it hope to achieve by becoming a nuclear weapon state (NWS)? Does it believe in "minimal deterrence"? How does it define it? Does it plan full-scale weaponisation, with a hugely expensive command, control, communications and intelligence infrastructure? What is its strategy for coping with the hostility of the international community and the suspicion of its own neighbours (China not excluded) towards its nuclear stance? How does it propose to reconcile its craving for an "official" status as a NWS with its professed goal of universal nuclear disarmament?

Even on such a relatively simple and short-term issue as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), New Delhi has been unable to articulate a cogent stand. There is not one position but four at least which could be detected at different times: India will not sign the treaty in its present form (Defence Minister George Fernandes); we will adhere to its "principal undertakings" under certain conditions (Brajesh Mishra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister); we cannot alter the CTBT's terms, but want to tie up our signature with a larger bargain involving technology transfer (Jaswant Singh, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission who has been representing India at the talks with the U.S.); India, in cooperation with "the international community", "is prepared" to bring its discussions with the U.S. on the issue "to a successful conclusion so that the entry into force of the CTBT is not delayed beyond September 1999" (Prime Minister Vajpayee).

Vajpayee's September 24 statement at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) was the closest the Government has come to saying it will sign the CTBT. It was widely interpreted as such. But Indian officials were quick to put a wholly different spin on it after noting the far-from-favourable reaction to the statement from political parties. For instance, some of them told a delegation of the National Conference of Editorial Writers from the United States, that what Vajpayee meant was not that India will sign the treaty in a year, but only that India interprets its Article XIV in such a way that it can come into force without India signing it - those who want to ratify the CTBT and make it enter into force should go ahead and do so. Now, merits apart, Article XIV is simply not open to such an interpretation. The treaty cannot enter into force unless 44 specifically named states ratify it. India is one of them. The conference planned for September next is not one that can amend the treaty: it is more a hands-on exercise than a political one.

That is just one instance of major inconsistencies and anomalies in the official stand. Another is the Government's failure to respond up front to the important, in many ways arrogant, statement made by Strobe Talbott at the Brookings Institution on November 12, followed by a question-and-answer session. In that statement, Talbott declared that the U.S. remained "committed to the common position of the P-5, G-8.... including on the long-range goal of universal adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)..." Talbott was explicit: "We do not, and will not, concede, even by implication, that India and Pakistan have established themselves as nuclear weapons states under the NPT... Unless and until they disavow nuclear weapons and accept safeguards on all their nuclear activities, they will continue to forfeit the full recognition and benefits that accrue to members in good standing of the NPT... This is a crucial and immutable guideline for our policy, not least because otherwise we would break faith with the states that forswore a capability they could have acquired - and we would inadvertently provide an incentive for any country to blast its way into the ranks of the nuclear weapons states."

Equally important, he outlined the five steps on which the U.S. demands India's and Pakistan's commitment: signature of the CTBT; suspension of fissile material production in advance of a multilateral treaty, the Fissile Missile Cutoff Treaty (FMCT); non-deployment of nuclear weapons and missiles, etc. in the short run; restraint on nuclear exports; and an India-Pakistan bilateral dialogue to resolve outstanding disputes. (These are largely in line with the proposals first discussed in this column; Frontline, September 11, 1998).

It is doubtful if there has been substantial progress on any of these issues barring export controls - the least thorny one. The Indo-Pakistan dialogue has resolved little even on issues such as Siachen, Tulbul/Wular Barrage and Sir Creek which are eminently amenable to solution - itself so transparently in their own interest. More pertinent, it is not clear if the Vajpayee Government can achieve a narrowing of differences on these questions after the issues and the parameters for their resolution have been made public.

This means the Government has got itself into a veritable trap: while embarking on its nuclear gamble, it had thought it would be able to start a dialogue with the state that is the least committed to nuclear disarmament and which happens to be the world's sole - and consistently arrogant - superpower, and that it would somehow be able to capitalise on the relatively soft U.S. line on the BJP (a result of its pro-Western stand during the Cold War and its generally right-wing character) and on the U.S. conservative Right's suspicions of China.

This has not worked. In the process, New Delhi has courted hostility from China and other major states, and closed many negotiating options. It has made itself even more vulnerable to pressure from the U.S. It is futile to pretend that the blacklisting of 40 Indian "entities" and their 200 affiliates will not affect India, or that the partial lifting of U.S. sanctions on November 7 is a triumph for India. India remains vulnerable and isolated in the international community.

THAT is the precise meaning of the UNGA's First Committee resolution (November 13) deploring the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan and demanding that they sign the CTBT, and the November 4 UNGA resolution calling for a nuclear weapons-free zone (NWFZ) in South Asia. India tried hard to get a number of non-aligned states to vote against the First Committee resolution. But, despite hectic efforts, it could only get such states as Bhutan, Benin, Zambia and Zimbabwe, besides Pakistan, to oppose it. Among the 31 states which abstained were India's neighbours (Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives), and old friends such as Cuba, Kenya, Libya, Tanzania and Nigeria.

South Block's spin-doctors tried to play down the significance of the resolution, which now goes to the UNGA. Instead, they hyped the importance of India's rather feeble attempt to appear "reasonable" and "responsible" by moving a resolution calling for de-alerting nuclear weapons to "reduce the risks" of their "unintentional and accidental use". This went through with a much smaller margin - 67 to 44 with 17 abstentions - (compared to 98:6:31) but was trumpeted in some newspapers as "India's snub" to the "Big Five". The vote, said a daily, "became a sort of unstated referendum on India's nuclear status... New Delhi...went into overdrive, calling in old friendships and engaging potential allies. Ministry sources pointed out that 'nothing was left to chance. Not only every vote in favour, every abstention was also important'."

This would have sounded a little less incredible had the import of the two resolutions been comparable. As it happens, it is not even remotely so. De-alerting nuclear weapons and keeping the warheads separate from delivery vehicles are unexceptionable ideas. But such restraint is no substitute for the qualitative reduction of nuclear weapons and their abolition.

Secondly, if the real logic of nuclear restraint by the P-5 was culled out from the resolution, it would apply a fortiori to India and Pakistan: if nuclear deterrence is indeed unreliable, if nuclear weapons are liable to be used accidentally, unauthorisedly and unintentionally, if there were hundreds of emergencies - with the arming and near-launch of nuclear missiles - during the Cold War, despite elaborate preventive measures and super-expensive permissive action links; if it is not deterrence but "God's grace" that saved the world from nuclear disaster (according to former U.S. Strategic Command chief Lee Butler) then such things could happen the more easily, and with a higher probability, in this subcontinent.

Every single sensible argument that India itself advanced in the past 50 years against nuclear deterrence (which it termed "abhorrent", morally "repugnant" and strategically unworkable) can be thrown back at its official position today to plead not just for de-alerting - a limited step, since they can be re-alerted - but for not manufacturing, possessing, using, or threatening to use, nuclear weapons. It is disingenuous for Indian officials to cite the strong argument based on the history of Cold War emergencies in support of a pathetically limited plea. If India thinks it is enhancing its credibility by moving resolutions for de-alerting or by offering to support - as it did in August - a South-East Asian nuclear weapons-free zone presumably as an NWS, it is sadly mistaken. The truth is, New Delhi and Islamabad, which smashed the nuclear status quo without a strong security rationale, and which have been in a state of hot-cold war for half-a-century, are widely expected to show more than symbolic restraint.

Such moves can only be derived from a coherent, internally consistent, doctrine. Until recently, India did have such a doctrine which rejected deterrence and the notion that nuclear weapons are essential for security. The Bharatiya Janata Party has overthrown that doctrine but has not put anything in its place. In BJP Today, its ideologues are busy attacking the Nehruvian legacy, in particular, Nehru's rejection in the early 1960s of a U.S. offer to provide assistance to an Indian bomb as a counter to China's nuclear preparations. Documents pertaining to these were made public a few years ago under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, and were cited by former Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit in his South Block Years to express regret that Nehru rejected the offer - as it happens, strongly, categorically and contemptuously. The BJP is merrily condemning the legacy of non-alignment and principled nuclear abstinence. This is deeply shameful and speaks of a pathological obsession with nuclearism.

The BJP condemns what most sensible Indians should feel proud of in regard to Nehru. India would have willingly become a U.S. vassal under the policy the party advocates. However, none of this kowtowing to Washington's nuclear might is likely to let the BJP off the hook of international opprobrium.

ATTITUDES such as these are linked to some rather outlandish ideas about India's history and strategic thought, itself a paranoid statement of "conquests" by "aggressors". The best example is a paper by Jaswant Singh written for CASI (Centre for the Advanced Study of India, Philadelphia) entitled "What Constitutes National Security in a Changing World Order?: India's Strategic Thought". It claims that India's concept of nationhood is "non-territorial and essentially civilisational". "India 'lost' to waves of aggressors principally because the notion of the 'territory' of an 'Indian state' was just not there; nothing, therefore, had to be defended at all costs." "Because of our convictions about honour and chivalry... our adversaries routinely got the better of India." From such weird argumentation, he moves on to the contemporary period: Had India after Pokhran-I "conducted a series of other such tests and established clearly our ability, then it would have been easier to cope with all confusion of subsequent years, these current international pressures, and all the other difficulties of today." Jaswant Singh claims that India "continues to adhere to the principle enunciated by... Nehru, who (said) that 'nuclear, chemical, and biological energy and power should not be used to forge weapons of mass destruction'. " But in his June 1 postscript, he blatantly contradicts himself: "India is now a nuclear weapon state. This is a reality... It is not a conferment that we seek; nor is it a status for others to grant. It is an endowment to the nation of its due, the right of one-sixth of humankind."

Of such deeply contradictory thoughts is born the incoherence that lies at the core of the BJP's nuclear and strategic thinking. There is only one way to overcome that contradiction: dump the assumption that nuclear weapons promote security, and return to the global disarmament agenda - seriously, and purposively. Perhaps the best means of doing so would be for India to suspend unilaterally its nuclear and missile preparations and mobilise world opinion for negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament on global, comprehensive, nuclear weapons elimination.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor