The BJP's Bombs

The nuclear tests by the BJP-led Government have irrevocably altered India's strategic doctrine, undermined its policy of constructive engagement with its neighbours and invited a global backlash. Published in the issue dated June 5, 1998.

Published : May 20, 2021 00:00 IST

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee addressing BJP supporters at his residence in New Delhi on May 15.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee addressing BJP supporters at his residence in New Delhi on May 15.

AFTER weeks of disorientation, of tepid, slothful and indifferent performance, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government on May 11 blasted the nation into a future of uncertainty, ethical confusion and multiplying strategic threats. Institutional processes - and the unwritten rules of national security - make nuclear weapons policy an area of executive privilege, where the Prime Minister is not obliged to seek concurrence from his Council of Ministers, far less the political Opposition. But the three nuclear blasts at Pokhran in the Rajasthan desert on May 11, though quite as dramatic a fait accompli as India's only earlier nuclear test in 1974, stirred up national emotions as never before and invoked the kind of global backlash that the country has rarely been exposed to.

Shakti '98 was the name bestowed upon the series of tests that concluded on May 13, with two further detonations in Pokhran. The brief announcement by Prime Minister Vajpayee on the evening of May 11 was followed shortly afterwards by a more detailed elaboration by his Principal Secretary, Brajesh Mishra. Aside from its vagueness on the security compulsions behind the tests, Mishra's statement was chillingly clear on the strategic implications: "These tests have established that India has a proven capability for a weaponised nuclear programme. They also provide a valuable database which is useful in the design of nuclear weapons of different yields for different applications and for different delivery systems."

A further articulation was provided at a joint press conference by top officials of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) on May 17. Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Director-General of the DRDO and Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister, explained that cooperation between the two agencies had been under way for some length of time. Such a partnership, he explained in a discursive style that retained a curious sense of impersonality and dispassion, necessarily reaches its fruition in a particular kind of event - a nuclear explosion. Reverting then to a prepared text, he announced that "DRDO and DAE have effectively and efficiently integrated their respective technological strengths in a national mission to confer the country with a capability to vacate nuclear threats."

DAE Secretary Dr. R. Chidambaram, who is also concurrently Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, refused to reveal the nature of the material that had been used in the Pokhran tests. He did put an end to various conjectures about the character of the tests. A thermonuclear fusion device had indeed been detonated on May 11, he confirmed, which represented an area where the country earlier had no proven capability. The range and variety of the tests, he said, reflected the breadth of competence that the DAE had acquired, particularly in its premier research laboratory, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.

To say that the aftermath of the tests was euphoric would be a considerable understatement. Scepticism about the prudence and rationale of an overt nuclear posture was at a premium as the impact from Pokhran washed over the country on that heady dawn of May 12. The few reservations that were expressed arose only from those who feared the consequences of international isolation and ostracism for the Indian economy.

All this marked a quantum change of personality for a country that had built its nuclear weapons posture on a number of ethical postulates. A full and formal articulation of the Indian doctrine has perhaps not been made, but its discrete components were evident from positions the country took in global councils at key junctures in the disarmament debate. Tacitly, the nation's position was that knowledge is free, and even if it is not always deployed for human betterment, there should be adequate safeguards against its utilisation in ends that threaten human survival. From here, it followed logically that as long as the threat of nuclear extinction exists, no people or nation could be coerced into surrendering its right to acquire the knowledge that could underwrite a countervailing power.

India's nuclear doctrine was a complex sum of many parts. It had been crafted through a prolonged encounter with the effort of the nuclear weapon states (NWSs) to make the world secure for their hegemony. Leading this effort was the U.S., the only country to have ever utilised nuclear weapons. Curiously, India's first and so far only explanation of the strategic rationale behind the tests of May 11, was proferred to the Government of the U.S., among four other industrialised nations.

It is believed, in the absence of definitive clarification, that the letters sent out by the Prime Minister to the five heads of government were identical in their contents. The communication sent to U.S. President Bill Clinton was leaked to The New York Times , and later published in the Indian media. And although all preceding official briefings had scrupulously avoided naming the source of the external threat which compelled India to advance its state of nuclear preparedness, Prime Minister Vajpayee seemed to suffer no such compunctions.

"We have an overt nuclear weapon state on our borders," wrote the Prime Minister: "a state which committed armed aggression against India in 1962. Although our relations with that country have improved in the last decade or so, an atmosphere of distrust persists mainly due to the unresolved border problem." Suspicions had been heightened, continued Vajpayee, by the material help this state had rendered "another neighbour of ours to become a covert nuclear weapon state." Relations with this latter neighbour were especially embittered by "three aggressions in the last 50 years," and by the "unremitting terrorism and militancy sponsored by it in several parts of our country."

The Prime Minister's explanation raises questions about the coherence level of India's strategic doctrine. Most observers with some insight into these affairs have pointed out that Defence Minister George Fernandes was kept in the dark about the tests till the very last. In an interview to Frontline in early April, Fernandes had stated quite categorically that the question of the nuclear option would only be taken up after the National Security Council was constituted and a comprehensive strategic defence review completed.

The account available from Dr. Kalam, Director-General of the DRDO, suggests that the tests required a gestation period of a mere 30 days from political clearance to actual execution. This indicates that the political leadership had flagged off the show of nuclear might by April 12 or so - when the Defence Minister was clearly under the impression that no tests would be conducted without its essential precursor, a strategic review, being completed. This raises serious questions about the level of consultation and deliberation involved. Even if Fernandes was not a party to the final decision, his rather quixotic effort to reorient the strategic perspective in the recent past - in particular by engaging in a rhetorical joust with China - indicates that he was perhaps an unwitting participant in the effort to create a congenial climate of public opinion, both domestically and globally.

As a tactical gamble, India's effort to demonise China produced distinctly mixed results. President Clinton was not deterred from signing a series of economic sanctions into law. These are obligatory on him under the U.S. statute, though he could conceivably have sought to buy time if he felt a compelling need to engage with India's concerns. Some reservations were expressed by Newt Gingrich, the ultra-conservative Speaker of the U.S. Congress, who felt that China also merited equal censure and sanction by the U.S. President. But Jesse Helms, another far-right politician who heads the powerful Foreign Relations Committee in the U.S. Senate, gave little latitude to this argument, fully endorsing the imposition of tough sanctions against India.

In the bargain, a slow but fairly sure-footed process of rapprochement with China has been endangered. Although the Chinese reaction to the May 11 tests was low-key, the second round of tests on May 13 elicited a sharply worded statement. This coincided with the publication of Vajpayee's letter to Clinton in The New York Times . Clearly irked by the tone of the communication, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman described the May 13 tests as an act of "outrageous contempt" for world opinion.

IN three tumultuous days in May, India's strategic doctrine was irrevocably altered and its policy of constructive political engagement in the neighbourhood greatly undermined. If rationalisation prior to the event was avoided and the decision was made under layers of camouflage, the effort of grappling with the ramifications after the event have been weak and half-hearted.

A degree of strategic confusion is apparent in official pronouncements since May 11. At his first briefing, Brajesh Mishra spoke of India's willingness to adhere to "some of the commitments in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty." But this, he went on, could not be "done in a vacuum". "It would necessarily be an evolutionary process from concept to commitment and would depend on a number of evolutionary activities."

Other commentators who exulted in the afterglow of the nuclear tests, were prepared to go further and argue that signing the CTBT would be an appropriate and prudent move. The argument had a hint of self-serving opportunism about it. India's refusal to sign the CTBT had been premised upon three fundamental objections: first, it did nothing to further progress towards the goal of universal nuclear disarmament; second, it placed no restraints upon sub-critical nuclear tests which have immense value in the maintenance and upgradation of existing weapon stockpiles; and thirdly, it stopped short of banning computer simulations of weapon designs, which, existing NWSs, with their databases compiled from years of testing, are in a position to utilise to great efficacy.

Official statements about the five nuclear tests in May claim that they have yielded a database which would be of utility in future computer simulation exercises. The second series of tests, in the words of an official release, was explicitly targeted towards generating "additional data for improved computer simulation of designs and for attaining the capability to carry out sub-critical experiments."

Effectively, the second round of tests puts India in an advantageous position to utilise the two lacunae in the CTBT that it had strenuously been objecting to till only recently. The larger concern - that of ensuring a nuclear weapons-free world - remains unaddressed. Signing the CTBT would expose India's entire record of participation in these debates as a quite meaningless charade.

The CTBT option is also advocated by many who see the recent series of tests as an avoidable exercise. Lieutenant-General V.R. Raghavan, who recently retired from the Indian Army as Director-General of Military Operations, argues that the country has squandered vital moral capital by conducting these tests. India will be accused of doublespeak in international councils and its advocacy of comprehensive disarmament would enjoy little credibility. Signing the CTBT would be one way of limiting the damage, in his assessment. Any further hedging on the issue would only be counter-productive, as the international community would only tighten the screws on India.

YET, there remain strong reservations across the political spectrum about the CTBT option. These compelled the Prime Minister to deny any intention to accede to the CTBT in its present form. But he has not spelt out what the new nuclear doctrine will be. The policy of constructive ambiguity, which was India's position for long, has been under strain in recent times, particularly as insurgencies multiply in the border regions. It is learnt that the P.V. Narasimha Rao Government had decided in late 1991 to adopt the more assertive posture of "recessed deterrence" - to keep the components of operational nuclear devices in readiness at various locations, so that a quick deployment could be effected on the basis of a perceived strategic need.

This was followed, in 1995, by a decision to conduct a nuclear test. But U.S. surveillance satellites spotted the incipient preparations in the Pokhran test range and The New York Times blew the whistle, compelling the P.V. Narasimha Rao Government to retreat. Clearly, the ground was being prepared for a radical overhaul of nuclear doctrine since well before the BJP Government pressed the decisive button.

The unanimous resolution adopted by Parliament in 1996, deprecating international pressure to coerce Indian accession to the CTBT, was perhaps the only occasion when nuclear doctrine was comprehensively debated in a public forum. The common motif running through the interventions by all participants was that the CTBT only compounded the gross asymmetries of an unequal world - it only perpetuated an iniquitous bargain that India was not obliged to partake of. There were few then who said that India should actually exercise the option - if anything, there was a great diversity of opinions on the matter, with only the BJP, consistent with its long-held position, insisting on early deployment.

Security concerns were articulated in the official Indian position on the CTBT, but as a derivative of the global disarmament agenda. It is in this sense crucial that the recent events and their rationalisation, represent a significant lowering of the nation's sights, from a global and ethical perspective, to a narrow, national-paranoiac, security-obsessed perception. They also undermine another long-held national position - that nuclear weapons are no guarantee of security. The logic of nuclear extremism is self-limiting. The U.S. discovered as much when its briefly-held nuclear monopoly, which it was grudgingly willing to share with the U.K. and France, was eroded first by the Soviet Union and then by China.

It is more than likely that India will soon discover the same in the regional context. This may not, as theorists of nuclear power argue, lead to the happy denouement of a more rational and realistic dialogue between long-antagonistic neighbours. It could, as in the Cold War context, lead to quite the opposite spiral of competitive extremism.

Nuclear doctrine, unless firmly anchored in a set of ethical postulates, is a dangerously mutable entity. Strategic nuclear advantage is where it all starts, but at the slightest hint of competition, this is easily transformed into a notion of preemptive strike capacity. From there, to the more passive notion of deterrence and the macabre culmination of "mutually assured destruction", are but short steps.

The U.S. has travelled that road before, and India has been among its toughest critics. The Pokhran tests, conducted by an insecure coalition Government with a tenuous claim to popular legitimacy, marks a complete reversal of course. Its timing, and its stated rationale, signify a new willingness to play along with an irrational and unequal global nuclear bargain. Having shed all restraint, India now seeks to join those who would exercise restraint upon those lesser placed.

A recent estimate by the Brookings Institution in Washington puts the cumulative cost incurred in building and maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal since 1944 at $5 trillion. In addition, the U.S. will need to allocate a sum of $230 billion (at current prices) over the next two decades just to clean up contaminated sites and decommission weapons assembly plants. Nuclear competition between the U.S. and the erstwhile Soviet Union took a heavy toll of the latter nation's resources, contributing at least in part to the political implosion that ended its existence in 1991.

India is clearly in no position to venture into the cul de sac of a nuclear arms race. Neither can it afford to reactivate long-dormant antagonisms across its vast borders with China.

India proved a recalcitrant in both the NPT and the CTBT contexts, on account of its adherence to a larger set of principles and a global perspective. In the circumstances created by the recent tests - rather grandiloquently titled Shakti '98 - it may well be able to attain a new and somewhat more advantageous position in the global nuclear bargain. But the negotiation process will be arduous, its goals as yet undefined, and its ethical foundations, dubious at best.

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