Seeking a paradigm shift

Published : Apr 11, 1998 00:00 IST

The BJP's nuclear policy is an unprincipled, violent break with long-established consensus. It will degrade India's security and legitimise horror weapons. The Government has no mandate for this.

WHATEVER compromises the Bharatiya Janata Party may have made with its allies to string together hastily the National Agenda for Governance (NAG), the party has yielded nothing whatsoever on the question of nuclear weapons. It has imposed on them, word for word, the precise formulation of its election manifesto: it will "re-evaluate the country's nuclear policy, and exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons." The BJP agreed to put in abeyance the manifesto's obsession with Ayodhya, Article 370 and a Uniform Civil Code, as also many other demands. But its inflexibility on the nuclear issue, and the appointment of the hawkish Murli Manohar Joshi as the Minister in charge of Atomic Energy, shows that it is dead serious about nuclearisation.

This is not a result of its allies' informed and principled agreement, as opposed to hollow consensus: they at best discussed nuclear weapons desultorily before the release of the National Agenda on March 18; most parties in this ragtag band are not known for an informed stand on security issues. The National Agenda's formulation directly reflects the BJP's views. This has not attracted the attention it deserves because of the soft attitude of much of the media towards the BJP, and the attempt of the hawkish segment in the "strategic community" to play down the significance of the new orientation. Some commentators have sought to present this as a continuation of earlier nuclear ambiguity. After all, the Government has not said that India is about to test a weapon, so what is the fuss? Why raise an alarm after Vajpayee has tried to "soften" his stand by saying that India will go nuclear only "if necessary"?

IN reality, the BJP-led Government's stated nuclear policy is a major, unconscionable, violent departure from the earlier official posture. Both in essence and practice, and in its premises and conclusions, it puts India on the path to overt nuclearisation. This, as we shall soon see, is disastrous for national security. Of course, the BJP has not clearly defined what exercising "the option" means. The statement is open to interpretation. Does it mean that India already has the weapons, and will now formally "induct" them? Is this a declaration of intent or a definite plan? What is the distinction between manufacture/possession of nuclear weapons and their deployment? Will India test such weapons, or "induct" them without testing?

The fact that there are such ambiguities does not mean that there is no fundamental clarity about one proposition: namely, that the BJP wants India to cross the nuclear threshold and end the basic ambiguity in a policy that left the nuclear weapons capability (that is, technological potential) untranslated into a weapons arsenal (a tangible military asset). This, surely, is a paradigm shift from the policy that New Delhi has followed since 1974.

Underlying this shift are two premises: first, that nuclear weapons are legitimate instruments of war; and second, that India needs them for its security. Neither premise bears scrutiny. Both violate the Indian stand on this issue for five decades - namely, that nuclear weapons, being particularly horrifying weapons of mass destruction, are morally indefensible, legally impermissible, and strategically irrational. They are fundamentally illegitimate. If there is one thread of continuity in New Delhi's stated stand on nuclear weapons through all its vacillations, shifts of nuance, and varying degrees of ambiguity through the past 50 years, it is this: it has never conceded their legitimacy This was true in the 1950s, when it wanted them declared "a crime against humanity"; in the 1980s, when it advanced the Rajiv Gandhi abolition plan; or in 1995-96, when, even amidst the heated debate over the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), it argued spiritedly before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for their outlawing.

India's plea was upheld by the ICJ's July 1996 "advisory opinion" declaring the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons as being in violation of international law and international humanitarian law. Nuclear weapons are quintessentially offensive, and liable to wreak indiscriminate devastation over vast areas through intense shock-waves, scorching heat, firestorms, and ionising radiation - with their effects lasting across generations. They are the first human invention with the awesome potential to exterminate the human race, indeed all life. They violate all principles of justice in war (jus in bello), including military necessity, proportionality (of violence), sparing of non-combatants, and avoidance of cruel and inhuman methods.

Nuclear weapons are also astrategic. According to distinguished generals - including Lee Butler, who headed the United States Strategic Command - they are strategically irrational, and associated with excessive risks and large-consequence accidents. Indeed, only insane strategists endorse nuclear war-fighting. But even the threat of their use, or deterrence, is wholly indefensible: it is illegitimate to threaten to scorch millions of people to instant death. Thus New Delhi has always argued that nuclear deterrence is an "abhorrent" and "repugnant" doctrine.

The BJP violates this sound logic. Needless to say, it does not state its own reasoning, such as it might be, for doing so. All one can glean from its leaders' statements is that India should have nuclear arms because others have them, because of the size of its population, or because they are unlikely to be abolished in the near future. None of this constitutes a valid reason. Rather, it is no more than a mere statement of the crude logic of retribution which should shock any civilised conscience. New Delhi's stated policy has, again, soundly held that nuclear weapons are "not essential to the security of any state". Indeed, they create not security but insecurity. The whole history of the four decades-long global nuclear arms race was the story of states amassing more and more such weapons and building increasingly sophisticated warheads and delivery vehicles - only to add to their own insecurity. Built into the logic of nuclear deterrence is an arms race - a profoundly irrational, runaway competition which destabilises security balances and generates more insecurity. One irrefutable lesson of the past half-century is that insecurity or threats produced by nuclear weapons cannot be met by nuclear weapons.

Nothing has recently happened in India's security environment that warrants even a mild qualification of this proposition. It is irrelevant to cite, as some of India's hawks do, Sino-Pakistani nuclear cooperation. Apart from being old hat, such cooperation is of a limited, non-strategic nature. No state has recently threatened India with nuclear weapons or acted more belligerently than before. The global prospect for nuclear weapons elimination has not remained static or deteriorated. On the contrary, since the end of the Cold War, the world has witnessed a weak, uncertain, halting, reversible but nevertheless authentic, new momentum favouring nuclear disarmament. The end of the Cold War knocked out the principal rationale for nuclear arsenals. This is being increasingly recognised by policy-makers and -shapers. Thousands of nuclear weapons have been taken off alert, and there has been some progress in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) process despite greater U.S.-Russian asymmetry and the enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). There is growing pressure on the nuclear weapons states (NWSs) to disarm - in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review process, in the Conference on Disarmament, in the United Nations General Assembly, and in other forums. The end to testing, and the signing of the CTBT (with all its imperfections and problems with entry-into-force), represent a sizable gain, as does the denuclearisation of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, and the dismantling of the capabilities of Argentina, Brazil and South Africa.

The moral-legal-political norm against nuclear weapons has been strengthened with the fruition of a number of recent initiatives. Among them are the ICJ verdict, itself the result of a global campaign by a now-reinvigorated peace movement; the 1996 Canberra Commission report, by an independent expert group, including Nobel laureate Joseph Rotblat and, at another extreme, such former establishment hawks as Robert MacNamara, calling for the complete abolition, not just reduction, of nuclear weapons; and most important, a December 1997 statement by 61 former generals and admirals from the world over, including India, which powerfully indicts nuclear weapons-based strategic thinking and demands their abolition on strategic grounds that even hard-nosed generals will find difficult to refute.

No less significant has been the entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention last year, which faced stiff resistance from the Republican-dominated U.S. Senate, the Russian Duma, and New Delhi (which delayed depositing the instrument of ratification by a year, and even threatened to withdraw it), apart from Pakistan. This strengthens the norm against weapons of mass destruction and, with its tough intrusive verification procedures, creates a useful precedent. True, there have been some setbacks, for example, three sub-critical tests in the U.S. and the impasse on fissile materials cutoff in Geneva. But opinion in favour of nuclear restraint, arms reduction and eventual elimination (not just arms control or management) is growing. For instance, polls show that 68 per cent of U.S. citizens and 87 per cent of British citizens want their governments to negotiate complete nuclear disarmament. The climate remains favourable for serious multilateral initiatives for nuclear disarmament. That is why even former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Stansfield Turner calls for decoupling nuclear warheads from delivery vehicles and putting them into an "escrow" account.

South Asia alone defies the world trend. And it is only in India that a party in power espouses a rabid nuclear policy - just when the country should be campaigning for disarmament. The BJP evidently thinks overt nuclearisation will enhance India's security. However, it will lead to a deterioration in India's security matrix. Not only will it draw a uniformly hostile international response and isolate India - as had happened when India lost to Japan its bid for a temporary Security Council seat by 142 to 40 votes owing to its refusal to sign the CTBT. Nuclearisation will provide justification for a Pakistani bomb and induce China to target India as a nuclear adversary - for the first time. Thus, India will be simultaneously plunged into two nuclear arms races, in one of which (vis-a-vis China) it lacks a credible deterrent. China and Pakistan could enter into serious strategic nuclear cooperation. All this will degrade, not enhance, India's security.

Nuclearisation will mean diverting scarce resources away from rational priorities and urgent social tasks. Nuclear weapons rarely replace or substitute for conventional arms; they mean additional military spending. Their deployment needs a huge command, control, communications and intelligence infrastructure which alone accounts for half the cost of a nuclear weapons programme. Conservative calculations suggest that such a programme would soak up one-half to one per cent of GDP (gross domestic product), raising India's defence budget by a quarter or more.

If India exercises the nuclear option, it will vitiate the global climate for nuclear restraint, and make abolition much more difficult to achieve. But India's security lies in a nuclear weapons-free world. By nuclearising, New Delhi will strengthen the position of hawks in the NWSs and ensure the perpetuation of the present dangerous global nuclear status quo, which is a menace to world - and India's own - security. Quite apart from the penalties that would follow nuclearisation - which could be onerous if a test is conducted - reduced security itself should warn against nuclear adventurism. And yet, the BJP wants to put India on the slippery slope of nuclear deterrence followed by the NWSs in bringing the world to the present, sorry, pass.

The BJP's success in imposing its nuclear agenda on its 20-something allies is not the result solely of manipulation, itself real. It has two sources related to changes in elite attitudes. First, the CTBT debate of 1995-96 highlighted as never before some deep incoherences in the particular brand of nuclear ambiguity New Delhi follows as policy. Having characterised the CTBT as worthless, New Delhi also made it out to be a mere non-proliferation measure specifically directed at perpetuating the NWSs' nuclear hegemony. Thus, it added fuel to the hawkish anti-CTBT argument: why should India defy the CTBT and then act as if it were in place, by not exercising the nuclear option? This argument was only weakly opposed by the "middle ground", majority opinion and most political parties. The BJP seized on that argument and has developed it further.

Had India tried to justify its anti-CTBT stand by invoking a particular perception of national security, matters would have been somewhat different. But South Block could not resist the temptation, common to nuclear elites everywhere, to paint realpolitik motivations in the colours of a "genuine", universal commitment to disarmament. Hence the hype about how New Delhi alone was prepared to defy nuclear hegemonic aspirations with its "principled" position, while states which wanted the CTBT (some of them with even stronger provisions than eventually emerged) were being taken for a ride. Had India said that its deemed national security interests prevented it from acceding to a treaty which, with all its limitations, is an important, effective global restraint measure, then it could have better resisted the hawkish argument that defying the CTBT is logically the first step in a process leading to overt nuclearisation.

The other source for the hardening of the Indian elite's nuclear posture is that fifty years after Independence, its nationalism has become uneasy, tension-filled, restless and insecure. The Nehruvian consensus, centred strongly on non-alignment, has collapsed. Today, no alternative vision adequately overcomes the resultant ideological vacuum. What exists by way of a general foreign policy perspective is an uneasy amalgam of components of shifting weight: neo-liberalism in economic thinking, passive acceptance of unequal globalisation, traditional realpolitik reflexes favouring the pursuit of India's "natural" regional "pre-eminence" and future global status, coupled with a lingering Third Worldism. In two domains - cultural and military - this increasingly insecure nationalism has produced an aggressive orientation. Having badly failed to solve basic problems of poverty, destitution and illiteracy, the elite is looking for military shortcuts to high global stature. It is no coincidence that the growing external attraction for the elite of nuclearism is paralleled internally by the growing attraction of Hindutva. The BJP, which most vociferously demands nuclearisation, is also the party most associated with bellicose communal politics.

True, given the complex global context, the BJP-led Government will have to think twice before actually deciding to go overtly nuclear. But by imposing its agenda upon its alliance partners, it has managed to push the terrain of the nuclear debate dangerously close to crossing the nuclear threshold. India's uneasy, restless nationalism has found its nuclear expression. It should be firmly opposed by all secular and progressive parties and people. After all, the BJP, with its 25 per cent vote, and its shaky, ragtag government, has no mandate to make long-term, possibly irreversible, policy changes.

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