Published : Apr 11, 1998 00:00 IST

The BJP-led Government's intention to exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons marks a break with India's nuclear policy since 1974 and carries serious security and foreign policy risks for India.

THE Bharatiya Janata Party and its earlier incarnation, the Jan Sangh, have consistently advocated a hawkish line on matters of national security, particularly nuclear-related issues. Possessing the "bomb" is an article of faith with the party that now heads a coalition Government at the Centre. Nuclear weapons have always been viewed as a "currency of power" and the "ultimate weapon" by the BJP and a group of hawks on strategic issues whose contributions to the nuclear debate in India have had more than their fair share of play in the media. The BJP, now in power, finds it difficult to live down its hardline pronouncements of the past.

The party's election manifestoes of 1996 and 1998 supported the concept of a nuclear weapons-free world but reiterated its commitment "to re-evaluate the country's nuclear policy and exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons." Both the manifestoes emphasised the party's opposition to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the Fissile Material Control Regime (FMCR) and the Missile Technolgy Control Regime (MTCR), which, they said, were discriminatory. When the 1998 election campaign was on, the BJP's foreign policy spokesman, Brajesh Mishra, unequivocally stated that if his party was elected to power, it would make the bomb. Today, Mishra is Principal Secretary to Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and is an important adviser to Vajpayee on foreign and strategic affairs. In his comments to the media after he was appointed Principal Secretary, he reiterated his hardline views on the "nuclear option".

The BJP's 1998 manifesto committed the party to the expeditious development of the Agni series of intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which are capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

IN the 1980s, BJP ideologues used to talk about the need for a "Hindu" bomb - as opposed to the "Islamic" bomb which, Western conspiracy theories and media reports said, was in the making. The BJP is today the only party which wants to go openly nuclear regardless of whether there is any change in the regional or global strategic environment. It is therefore no surprise that the BJP-led Government has committed itself to changing India's long-standing nuclear policy, which favours global nuclear disarmament. The emphasis now has shifted to "national security", and the argument being advanced is that the acquisition of nuclear weapons is necessary to protect India's security interests.

The National Agenda for Governance, which the BJP drafted in consultation with its alliance partners and which laid out the policy formulations that the coalition Government would take up on a priority basis, stated that a National Security Council would be constituted to undertake India's first-ever Strategic Defence Review. The document said that in the course of the review the Government would "re-evaluate the nuclear policy" and then exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons. Union Home Minister and BJP president L.K. Advani, talking to newspersons before the Government won the vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha, emphasised the need for a credible nuclear option.

However, President K.R. Narayanan's address to the joint session of Parliament on March 25 made no mention of nuclear-related issues.

Significantly, in his reply to the debate on the motion of confidence, Vajpayee said: "Our party feels India should have the bomb since it will place the country in a strong position vis-a-vis the outside world. But other political parties apparently have a different view and therefore we have decided to keep the issue aside till a national consensus (is reached)."

Vajpayee's statement in Parliament was made a day after he spoke to U.S. President Bill Clinton on the telephone. India, which has resisted pressure from the U.S. to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), is one of the countries whose nuclear programme is under observation in the context of the U.S. arms control agenda.

Although the Prime Minister has stressed that there would be no change in India's nuclear policy, Defence Minister George Fernandes gives a different impression. He insists that the country could exercise the nuclear option after the "strategic review" (see interview).

THERE is reason to believe that the BJP has already edged back a bit from its hawkish stand on nuclear issues. The party, which was categorical about testing and inducting nuclear weapons, has in more recent times started talking about "putting them on the inventory". The reason for the change could be that any electoral dividend accruing from a radical change in nuclear policy would have to be shared with the smaller parties with which it now shares power. Besides, the sources claim, if any momentous decisions are taken soon, the Government would come under immense pressure from the U.S. and could even be destabilised, particularly given its precarious position in Parliament. (It survived the vote of confidence only with the support of the Telugu Desam Party; the TDP is against India exercising the nuclear option.)

A coherent government policy on the nuclear issue is yet to emerge. Within the security establishment, there are some people who demand that nuclear weapons tests be held; others see no pressing need to do so at this juncture. Those who favour nuclear tests say that that is the only way to have a credible deterrent capability. They argue that no option can be kept open indefinitely and that India cannot forever remain on the "nuclear threshold".

On the issue of missile development (see box), the BJP's stand is not very different from that of other parties. But the BJP, which had talked about the development of Agni in its manifesto, did not include it in the National Agenda. Some analysts believe that this was done after Pakistan temporarily dropped plans to test-fire the medium-range Ghauri missile. However, there is speculation about whether the Vajpayee Government will test a long-range missile soon. Some analysts who are considered close to the present Government argue that one of the important reasons why India should begin nuclear testing is that it would help create a credible missile-based nuclear deterrent.

THE BJP's move to unsheathe the nuclear sword has brought unwelcome international attention. With the CTBT awaiting ratification and the FMCR on the anvil, the attention of the international community is focussed on India. India's position on the CTBT was articulated by Arundhati Ghose, its representative at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva in 1996. She had said that India would never sign the treaty, "not now, nor ever." If India does not sign up this year, the treaty cannot come into force by 1999. (India is one of 44 countries listed in Annex 2 of the CTBT that must ratify the treaty for it to come into force.) The Clinton administration will be extremely keen to get India on board before that.

Many leading American writers on strategic affairs, such as Selig Harrison, have argued that Washington should understand India's position on the CTBT, especially its concerns regarding the unequal status granted in perpetuity to the nuclear weapons states and its demand for a time-bound framework for disarmament.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Non-proliferation Robert Einhorn told the U.S. Congress in early February that one of Washington's major goals was to "terminate Chinese assistance to Pakistan's unsafeguarded nuclear facilities and nuclear explosive programme." According to Einhorn, China has already made such a commitment. At Clinton's meeting with Prime Minister I.K. Gujral in September 1997, the two had agreed that their countries should hold talks on the nuclear issue. Coincidentally, during the debate on the motion of confidence in the Lok Sabha on March 27-28, Vajpayee was all praise for his predecessor's work on the foreign policy front.

The BJP's initial pronouncements on the nuclear issue seem to have sent alarm bells ringing in Washington. Senior U.S. administration officials are making a beeline for India. The chief of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Shirley Jackson, will be in Mumbai and Delhi in April. A U.S. delegation headed by the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Bill Richardson, the most important official in the State Department after Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, will visit India in mid-April. Accompanying Richardson will be Assistant Secretary of State Rick Inderfurth and Senior Director in the National Security Council Bruce Reidel, a former intelligence officer who has kept track of the nuclear programmes of India and Pakistan for long. Richardson is scheduled to meet Vajpayee.

It will be a continuation of the "strategic dialogue". High on the agenda will be talks on opening up U.S. civilian nuclear technology for India and restructuring the United Nations Security Council.

Former U.S. Defence Secretary William Perry had, in an address to the New York-based Foreign Policy Association in 1995, signalled a re-appraisal of U.S. nuclear policy in South Asia. "I recognise that the nuclear capabilities of India and Pakistan flow from a dynamic that we are unlikely to be able to influence in the near term. Rather than seeking to roll back - which we have concluded is unattainable in these two countries - we have decided, instead, to seek to cap their nuclear capabilities." The Clinton administration seems to have reconciled itself to India's eventual acquisition of nuclear weapons and may have second thoughts on its objective of persuading India to "roll back" its nuclear programme. The Clinton administration has tacitly recognised India as a responsible state with undeclared weapons capacity. According to some Western intelligence reports, India already has an arsenal of 50 to 60 bombs. A recent report, based on U.S. intelligence surveys, estimated that India had enough weapons-ready plutonium for about 20 bombs. Besides, according to intelligence sources, India had conducted simulated laboratory testing of nuclear weapons.

THE BJP's nuclear posture, as reflected in the National Agenda and its election manifesto, has triggered a national debate. The Congress(I), the principal Opposition party, has criticised the BJP's nuclear agenda. Former External Affairs Minister and Congress(I) leader Pranab Mukherjee made a scathing attack on the BJP in the Rajya Sabha. He said that the BJP had gone against the national consensus on the nuclear issue and had made a unilateral announcement which would "trigger an arms race in the subcontinent". The Government, he said, was perhaps not aware of "the serious implications of such rhetoric." Mukherjee said that the consensus among national political parties was that India would not go in for a nuclear deterrent as it favoured a nuclear weapons-free world.

Communist Party of India (Marxist) Polit Bureau member Prakash Karat told Frontline that his party opposed the BJP's position on exercising the nuclear option. The CPI(M), he said, remained firmly committed to the concept of universal nuclear disarmament. "The acquisition of nuclear weapons," Karat said, "would trigger an arms race in South Asia". If the BJP Government exercised the nuclear option, "it would unleash consequences beyond its control," Karat added.

Karat said that the CPI(M) was in favour of retaining the "nuclear option" but this did not mean that his party supported weaponisation. Karat also criticised the nuclear powers for not utilising the opportunities that were available to abolish nuclear weapons after the Cold War period ended. The CPI(M) leader was of the view that the Agni programme should be continued and not "frozen". At the same time, he said, India and Pakistan should try and come to an agreement to stop the missile race in the subcontinent. The CPI(M) fully supported the Gujral Government's efforts to improve relations with Pakistan, he said.

The Janata Dal and the Communist Party of India (CPI) are also against any move to test or induct nuclear weapons. Although the BJP's allies in Government subscribe to the National Agenda, they have evidently not devoted much attention to the issue. The Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Akali Dal favour the induction of nuclear weapons if it is absolutely necessary for the defence of the country. The Samajwadi Party, however, said that the BJP was using the nuclear issue as a political gimmick.

Lt. Gen. (Retd) V. Raghavan, who has considerable combat experience and is currently with the Delhi Policy Group, says that an objective analysis of the security situation shows that the induction of nuclear weapons is not warranted. "It will complicate the management of conflict in more ways than one and will create a completely new strategic environment," he said.

According to Raghavan, the previous Government's stand on the nuclear question provided the country adequate manoeuvring room on issues such as the CTBT and the FMCR. The BJP's position, he said, would reduce this space and could ultimately have an adverse impact on internal stability and economic development. The country, he said, should not back away from taking decisions to protect its national interest for fear of inviting sanctions, but such a decision should be taken only when the situation warrants it.

Maj-Gen. Dipankar Bannerjee, Director of the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, is of the view that a nuclear bomb is not much of a deterrent. A nuclear weapon has been used only once, and the presence of the nuclear-armed USS Enterprise in the Bay of Bengal during the Bangladesh war did not deter the Indian Government from going ahead with its work. The recurring costs would also have to be considered. Each time India develops a new weapons delivery system, new bombs will have to be made, said Bannerjee.

Bannerjee said that nuclear weapons would have no role to play in India-China relations "unless India wants to liberate Tibet. And if China wants to destabilise India, it can do so without firing a shot," said Banerjee. According to him, the Chinese Government has abided by Deng Xiaoping's decision in 1976 that China would not support insurgencies in neighbouring countries. China also has not deployed missiles or nuclear weapons in Tibet, although the Tibetan plateau comprises about 40 per cent of the Chinese mainland. China has repeatedly said that it will not resort to the "first use" of nuclear weapons.

India's immediate neighbourhood is thus strategically benign, but that might change if the Vajpayee Government persists with its nuclear policy. Any overt expression of nuclearisation on India's part could drive Pakistan and China even closer militarily. The cordial working relationship that has been established with China may deteriorate if India were to weaponise, according to some officials in the External Affairs Ministry.

SMALLER South Asian nations may demand a "nuclear umbrella" from the West if "Big Brother India" openly goes nuclear. An Indian bomb would make them see India as expansionist, hegemonistic power. Some officials in the External Affairs Ministry fear that the fallout would be felt from West Asia across to South-East Asia. If they find themselves wedged between two nuclear powers - India and China - the countries of South-East Asia would once again rush into Washington's arms.

The feeling among most parties and strategic thinkers is that no single party has the right to change long-standing nuclear policies. Before such momentous decisions are taken there should be a full-fledged debate in Parliament and a clear consensus should emerge, for the implications of such decisions for the nation extend beyond nuclear issues.

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