'Action will follow a review'

Print edition : April 11, 1998

Whether he is in the Opposition or in Government, George Fernandes likes to make his mark. His choice to the Defence Minister's post surprised many people. In an interview, Fernandes told John Cherian that he had been closely following defence and related issues since the early 1980s. In the 1970s he had seemed to have an aversion to nuclear weapons. Today he has become one of the strongest supporters of the idea of India retaining the nuclear option and, if the need arises, exercising it. Excerpts:

How is your Government's position on the nuclear issue different from that of the previous Government? The I.K. Gujral Government also talked about keeping the nuclear option open.

We have gone one step further. What they said in a general kind of a way, we have made specific. We keep our nuclear options open and we cite our national positions on the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the CTBT, both of which India refused to sign. Implied in that position is the truth that India, if need be, will go in for a nuclear weapon. All that our National Agenda has said is that at the end of doing a strategic review, which will be the first of its kind, if we come to the conclusion that things have reached a stage with China and Pakistan - one an acknowledged nuclear power and the other claiming to be a nuclear power - and that India now needs to take the plunge, then so be it. What we are saying in so many words is what is implied in the national position. So why are some people now saying "Oh God!", and talking about international sanctions, and posing the question whether poverty alleviation or the weapons programme is more important. All this is a lot of hot air because our national policy implied in no uncertain terms such a development at some point in time. The only question is, has that point in time arrived. We have not said that it has arrived. In the course of the strategic review, if we believe that the time has come, so be it.

If India exercises the nuclear option, sanctions by the United States will come automatically.

Frankly, I have not personally seen any statement from any major nuclear power, whether it is the United States or any European country, that sanctions will be applied against India if such a decision is taken. Therefore, one need not make any comments about speculation.

There is an influential section in the BJP which is more interested in attracting foreign capital than exercising the nuclear option.

Foreign capital is only concerned with profits. Foreign capital will go wherever they can make profits. Western countries, North American Treaty Organisation countries, sell arms to countries that face sanctions.

You have a reputation as a pacifist. If the nuclear option is exercised, will it not trigger an arms race in the region?

I am a pacifist. But it was with the CTBT debate in the Lok Sabha that, after several hours of anguish and introspection, I stood up and said that much against my whole life's convictions and commitments, I am today changing my position. Because the manner in which the CTBT was sought to be imposed on India can some day expose my country to a critical security situation. I stood up and said that India should now oppose the CTBT and should now say that the options are open. So it is not something that has to do with the National Agenda. I am not doing anything under pressure.

Do you agree with the BJP's stance on the nuclear issue as reflected in its election manifesto?

The point today is that we have a National Agenda. Our individual manifestoes no longer figure in our political action or in our governmental action.

The President's speech did not mention the deployment of the Agni missile. After taking over as Defence Minister, you have only talked about the development of Agni. The BJP in its manifesto had talked about expediting the Agni programme.

On Agni our position is that we will test it and at the appropriate time we will go in for its production. At the moment there is no decision to produce Agni in terms of inducting it. My submission is that when people speak about an arms race and so forth, let us sit down together and let everybody talk about it. I said that after the Pokhran explosion or implosion. I was in jail when the test took place and I spent a sleepless night and I wrote an angry pamphlet called "India's bomb and Indira's India".

Weaponisation is not going to be cheap.

I agree that weaponisation is not cheap but there are times when a country has to take certain hard decisions. Today if we come to the conclusion that a hard decision on the nuclear question is called for, then we must be prepared to pay the price. This is where our policy should be understood when we say that following the strategic review of our nuclear policy, we can come to a conclusion. That is when we will have to act. I also believe that on security matters the people of this country should be taken into confidence. I believe that the people will respond when they know the size of the problem and may agree to bear any hardship where national security issues are involved.

There is talk of India declaring itself a nuclear power and then signing the CTBT. Will the West offer a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council as an incentive to sign the CTBT?

These are all speculative writings and not a matter of policy. Our security is not linked to the restructuring of the United Nations and a seat in the Security Council. National security is much bigger than a seat in the Security Council. We have a whole nuclear arsenal sitting across our border. National security is national security. Realities are realities. We should not shy away from realities.

Your Government is reportedly backtracking on the nuclear and missile issues owing to Western pressure...

This Government will not succumb to anybody's pressure. One of the primary tasks of the Government should be to restore the national pride and to announce our security concerns and developmental concerns so that nobody has any misgivings about our intentions.

Is there a time-frame for setting up the National Security Council? When is the Strategic Defence Review expected?

I will approach the Cabinet in a short while. This is not a matter concerning the Defence Ministry alone. It concerns the whole Cabinet.

As of now, the ambiguity in India's nuclear policy continues.

There is no ambiguity as such. On the ground there has not been any shift, but a position has been presented to the country and to the world. The steps towards a review have been taken and action will follow that review.

Is the Government's stand on the nuclear question the same as stated in the National Agenda for Governance, a statement of intent?


If you exercise the nuclear option, the chances are that India will be isolated internationally.

India has, in the last few years, isolated itself on security issues and more so on economic issues. A leader of the developing world, India abdicated its role at some point during the Uruguay Round of talks. With this in mind, I said India has to restore its pride and its place in the world. You are right in saying that we are isolated, but it is an isolation we chose for ourselves. Third World countries that are friendly to us have a feeling of having been let down.

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