The perils of nuclear adventurism

Print edition : May 23, 1998

THE five underground nuclear explosions - sweeping across the current technological spectrum from big league thermonuclear to state-of-the-art sub-kiloton - that India conducted in near-total secrecy at the Pokhran test range in the Rajasthan desert in the second week of May 1998 are a major world event, no question about it. They have profoundly affected the terms of the country's engagement with the region and the world, the environment, agenda and feel of domestic politics, and India's strategic-military status and posture.

Is India the Sixth Nuclear Weapon State?

Is India a nuclear weapon state after the five explosions? At this stage, the answer must necessarily be: it is and it is not.

After some initial diplomatic hedging, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee used a magazine interview opportunity to let everyone into the secret about Project Shakti: "India is now a nuclear weapons state... the decision to carry out these tests was guided by the paramount importance we attach to national security... the tests... have given India shakti, they have given strength, they have given India self-confidence."

Two days later came a high-powered New Delhi press conference addressed by the top scientists behind the nuclear weapons programme. Between them Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister and the man leading India's missile programme, and Dr.R. Chidambaram, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy, and chief designer of the 1974 fission device, said a great deal to make one thing clear. The defence and atomic energy establishments, backed by the Army and the Air Force, had come together to make nuclear weaponisation a fait accompli.

Since India is not a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), there is no question of its being hauled up for violating any treaty commitment. However, the May 1998 explosions have presented a major challenge to both treaties.

India is the first and only country to conduct nuclear explosions post-CTBT. (France and China conducted explosions in the run up to the conclusion of the treaty.) This does not of course automatically confer on India a nuclear weapon power status.

"Tell us what we are and we will tell you whether we can sign," a high-placed expert source formulated the Indian demand on the NPT regime. "Guarantee to us that technology controls, which you apply to us as though we were a non nuclear weapon state, will be removed." In short, let us into the NPT regime as the sixth nuclear weapon state and we might play.

The Global Policeman's Response

In response, the official U.S. line as of now is that there is no question of India being classified under the NPT regime as a nuclear weapon state since the NPT's cut-off date for the admittance of a nuclear weapon power is January 1, 1967. Bill Clinton, given to grand phrases, has accused India of making "a terrible mistake" and being "on the wrong side of history." "With regard to India's apparent declaration of itself as a nuclear weapons state," the State Department's spokesman has said in the toughest U.S. statement to date, "we regard this action as another deplorable step that further escalates an already unfortunate situation. We hope that India refrains from taking any further steps to further isolate itself from the international community."

With these five explosions, India has probably crossed the nuclear threshold - "the Rubicon," to draw on the overcharged Caesarian imagery served up by celebratory strategic affairs analysis. Just as the BJP took a pre-emptive decision to explode without any discussion or objective review, it is now trying, as part of an orchestrated propaganda campaign, to pre-empt any democratic discussion of whether India is - in awful, irreversible reality - the sixth nuclear weapon state that has, through its 'Shakti', broken into the Unequal Global Nuclear Bargain (UGNB).

Need to Stop Nuclear Weapon Induction

But testing nuclear devices, integrating nuclear weapon technologies and activities and establishing a "command and control" structure are not quite the same thing as inducting and deploying an arsenal of deliverable nuclear weapons. The demand, made by the Left parties and in other democratic and progressive quarters, that in the interest of peace, good neighbourliness and the masses of the Indian people, the BJP-led Government must not go ahead with the "making and induction of nuclear weapons" is relevant, correct and just. So is their demand that the Government must not compromise with the discriminatory nuclear order embodied in the NPT and the CTBT.

The Fall-Out

Internationally, the adverse reactions have come thick and fast, with some moderating influences at work to soften the sentiment to 'punish' India. The movement for Washington-led sanctions seems to be developing disturbingly enough but the overall picture is mixed, still hazy. With new demands made on India's nuclear and economic policies and ominous pressures visible in the middle distance, with an egregiously targeted China eyeing the changes bubbling up in bilateral waters, with Pakistan under terrific domestic political pressure to demonstrate its own nuclear weapon capability, India's international relations have clearly entered a turbulent and very uncertain phase.

Domestically, the explosions have been greeted by a mixture of understandable pride in the accomplishment of Indian nuclear scientists and chauvinistic/jingoistic political and media reactions which have a considerable impact on public opinion. The BJP made immediate use of the big effect generated by the explosions to divert attention from the people's disenchantment with its policies and the squabbling among the coalition partners who sustain the minority Government. The BJP's political strategy is clearly to go to the masses and use this effect to consolidate its position. But (as Aijaz Ahmad argues, impressively, in this issue), beneath the appearances there could be further Rightward policy shifts in international relations as well as in economic policy.

The Opposition parties barring the Left have more or less fallen in line with the 'nationalist' mood. The Congress(I), after some mild initial dissent has under Sonia Gandhi's diktat decided to support the fait accompli presented by the BJP-led government. Its emerging political differentiation does not seem to go beyond the complaint that the BJP is making a "systematic attempt" to exploit the Pokhran explosions as a "partisan political issue." The non-Left parties of the United Front have actually been ahead of the Congress(I) in backing the nuclear forward policy, with ex-Prime Minister I.K. Gujral zealously claiming for himself and his government a significant part of the credit for these explosions and musing perhaps on what might have been.

Pushing through a pre-set agenda

It turns out from the public testimony of the scientists at the New Delhi press conference of May 17 that the go-ahead for the Pokhran explosions was given around April 12, 1998 - that is, within a month of the Vajpayee government's taking office. The chauvinistic thinking and adventurism that have underlain the RSS' and the Sangh Parivar's approach to India's nuclear policy are well known. It is noteworthy that while the BJP did not include in the National Agenda For Governance its demands on Ayodhya, Article 370 and a Uniform Civil Code, it brought on board, without any fuss or resistance from its allies, its well-known nuclear and security policy hawkishness. This must be seen in linkage with the anti-China predilections of influential elements in the coalition, notably Defence Minister George Fernandes and several of the BJP leaders, and the tension-raising policies that are indicated vis-a-vis Pakistan.

The National Agenda For Governance mentions the following sequence of steps: the setting up of a National Security Council (NSC) which would undertake "India's first ever Strategic Defence Review", a re-evaluation of nuclear policy, and exercise of the option to induct nuclear weapons. It is now clear that the suggestion of a review or re-evaluation was a smokescreen for a decision already made by the RSS-BJP top leadership.

The absence of any wide-ranging democratic discussion or objective review of a pre-emptive decision on so vital a matter must be exposed and condemned.

India's nuclear option and a sharp departure

In a classic exercise in doublespeak, Vajpayee (in his India Today interview released on May 15) manages to appeal to two, seemingly incompatible political constituencies. On the one hand, he suggests to the Hindutva constituency that only the BJP, long committed to the bomb, has had the guts to do what only Indira Gandhi had once boldly attempted, only to be stopped in her tracks. On the other hand, he acknowledges, with an eye to a broader political constituency, that every government and every Prime Minister of independent India had kept "India's nuclear option open" and supported "India's indigenous research and development in the nuclear field." What the BJP-led government was doing today was to "build the superstructure on that solid foundation."

The question raised by this capsule history is: Were the May 1998 Pokhran explosions the culmination of a natural Indian nuclear policy evolution or progression? Or did they represent a break in, or a departure from, that policy?

There can be no question that India's nuclear policy was built on sound and progressive lines laid in the late 1940s by Dr. Homi Bhabha, the founding chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The substance of the policy was to pursue a rounded and many-sided nuclear energy programme that would be committed to the peaceful, non-military uses of nuclear energy in keeping with the goal of universal nuclear disarmament, but would retain its independence. The pursuit of independence and the refusal to accept any external controls instituted in a discriminatory way have been notable features of this policy.

What came to be known as India's 'nuclear option' appeared in the course of the development of the research side of the programme some time in the second half of the 1960s. In practical terms, it meant that India would not give up its sovereign right to develop all aspects of a nuclear programme, including weapons, unless the nuclear weapon states did so.

It is important to be clear about why the nuclear option was retained, protected and developed, what were the conditions under which it would not be exercised, and what were its motivations and purpose. From a democratic and progressive standpoint, the pursuit of independence on the nuclear question must go hand in hand with non-hawkishness, self-restraint and a genuine commitment to the global delegitimation and elimination of nuclear weapons.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), concluded in 1968 and brought into force in 1970, was given an indefinite and unconditional 'extension' in May 1995 at a stage-managed New York Review and Extension Conference. Its essence was the permanent division of the world into five nuclear weapon powers, the 'haves' - the United States, the Soviet Union/Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China - and the rest, the 'havenots'. By defining a nuclear weapon state as "one which has manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other explosive device prior to 1 January 1967" and prohibiting any signatory other than the five members of the pre-NPT nuclear weapons club from possessing nuclear weapons, the NPT vests the former with superior vested rights which have been 'immortalised' at least on paper.

What legitimate reason can there be today for not agreeing to eliminate nuclear arsenals if the real goal were global nuclear disarmament? Not for a moment can it be forgotten that despite various nuclear arms limitation and reduction agreements and the 'downsizing' that has taken place, what remains of the nuclear arsenals is of monster proportions. As for nuclear explosions, the United States had conducted, until the CTBT came along, an estimated 1,000; the Soviet Union/Russia 700; France 200; the United Kingdom and China 40 each.

India conducted its first nuclear explosion, the "Peaceful Nuclear Explosion" (PNE), in May 1974. After that, it became clear that India was a nuclear weapon capable state. After some lag, it became clear that Pakistan was also a nuclear weapon capable state.

According to leaders of the Indian nuclear energy programme, the Indian programme has always had a content and depth which Pakistan's has lacked; and it has stayed consistently ahead. This lead in the scientific-technical field has been powerfully demonstrated in the five sophisticated, controlled and successful underground nuclear explosions of different types. India's nuclear scientists and engineers deserve full credit for this.

Despite the obstructions and pressures and some vacillations over the years (especially during the Prime Ministerships of Morarji Desai and P.V. Narasimha Rao), national policy refused to sign away the sovereignty of decision-making on the nuclear issue while preserving its commitment to the peaceful, non-military uses of nuclear energy.

It would be useful in the present context to look at India's real objection to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which was approved by the United Nations General Assembly in September 1996. India after all had campaigned from the time of Jawaharlal Nehru for a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty as part of a commitment to universal nuclear disarmament. It had no problem in joining the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty. During the Rajiv Gandhi Prime Ministership, India played a leading role in a nuclear disarmament initiative that did not take off. In 1993, the Narasimha Rao Government went so far as to co-sponsor with the United States a U.N. General Assembly resolution in support of a CTBT and a fissile freeze treaty.

India came to be strongly targeted in the process of CTBT negotiations dominated by the United States and its nuclear weapon allies. The CTBT drama concerned only the five nuclear weapon states, India, Pakistan and Israel. But in the final analysis, it seemed to involve only India versus the U.S. and its allies.

At one point, it looked as though the Narasimha Rao Government would be pressured into the CTBT. But eventually, India under the first United Front Government took a firm stand in the negotiations, refusing to capitulate.

India's real objection was that the United States, tailed by other nuclear weapon powers, was bent on perpetuating the discriminatory NPT regime; was refusing to commit itself to any time-bound disarmament schedule; and had written loopholes into the treaty which would permit nuclear weapon states to continue refining and developing their nuclear arsenals at their test sites and in their laboratories (through computer simulation).

India won world attention by standing up against this discriminatory treaty, and especially the near-coercive Entry Into Force (EIF) provision which was seen as an affront to its sovereignty. What this means for India is that its coming into the CTBT has been made an explicit condition for EIF. The effective deadline is September 1999, that is three years after the CTBT was road-rollered through against India's opposition. If the Indian signature and ratification are not in by September 1999, the CTBT cannot come into force. If the CTBT does not come into force, a conference of the members of the treaty shall be called to discuss "measures" for that situation.

Post-Pokhran, the pressure on the Indian government to join the CTBT has intensified. It is significant that Clinton, after condemning the explosions and signing in sanctions, has already thrice publicly demanded that India sign the treaty immediately and without conditions.

In his official statement of May 11, Brajesh Mishra offered that "India would be prepared to consider being an adherent of some of the undertakings in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty," adding: "But this cannot obviously be done in a vacuum. It would necessarily be an evolutionary process from concept to commitment and would depend on a number of reciprocal activities."

What Mishra's reference to a "vacuum" and "reciprocal" probably means is: recognise us as the sixth nuclear weapon state, lift the general embargo placed by the U.S and its allies on the Indian nuclear industry since 1978, and we will drop all those objections that Arundhati Ghose made such a fuss over and come into the CTBT. Vajpayee's subsequent assurance, wrested by the Opposition, that his government would not sign the CTBT "unconditionally" is not incompatible with such a reading.

In fact, at this sensitive stage, the BJP-led Government appears to be saying two different things about the CTBT to two different audiences. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who chaired the Birmingham summit of the Group of Eight plus Russia, has reiterated the U.S. and Western demand that India should quickly sign the CTBT "without any conditions". Interestingly, he confided to a press conference that Vajpayee had told him in a telephonic conversation on May 15 that he would be "considering" this. "I trust this will be the case," Blair commented. "It is the only thing that is going to mitigate this." The British Prime Minister underlined the necessity of "urgent discussions" to get India to sign the CTBT unconditionally.

If the BJP-led Government's emerging stand on the CTBT carries the scent of unprincipled compromise, its stand on the fissile material cut-off treaty to come also needs careful watching.

What is suggested by all this is that the BJP-led Government's nuclear policy could swing, in the coming season, from hawkish adventurism to compromise and appeasement.

Frontline's considered editorial view is that India's longstanding policy with its twin components - the refusal to surrender the nuclear option by acceding to the NPT regime (or an equivalent option such as "full-scope safeguards" or a "South Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone"), and self-imposed and conditional restraint in not militarising the option - was eminently sustainable. Indeed, no other policy could have been considered peace-abiding and responsible under the circumstances. The accomplishment of the BJP-led Government, within two months of taking office, has been to undermine this longstanding policy.

Harmful effects and implications

There can be no doubt that the removal of the element of conditional self-restraint from nuclear policy and the unilateral conversion of the nuclear option as per the RSS-BJP pre-set agenda, without any kind of "strategic review" or discussion, are harmful developments for the following reasons:

* the adverse and deplorable impact on Sino-Indian relations: Defence Minister George Fernandes in recent public pronouncements and Prime Minister Vajpayee in his May 11, 1998 letter to President Clinton have signalled unfriendly attitudes to China. With these statements and actions, the heartening progress made since December 1988 in improving all-round relations with China could be in danger of reversal.

* it is clear that the nuclear explosions have worsened regional tensions and already troubled relations with Pakistan.

* it is likely that there will be an adverse and disturbing reaction from Pakistan, quite conceivably a decision overtly to weaponise its nuclear option or conduct some explosions.

* the Pokhran explosions are guaranteed to harm India's reputation among peace-loving, democratic and progressive constituencies round the world.

* with the U.S., Japan and Germany taking the lead, countries like Sweden and Norway quickly joining in and various members of the European Union readying to follow suit, the international move for economic sanctions against India is developing despite some efforts by Russia, France and, to an extent, the United Kingdom to argue against 'punishing' India. The idea of a joint developed country campaign for sanctions against India, if it was seriously entertained by the U.S. in the first place, seems to have been given the quietus at Birmingham. But complacency will not be in order. The U.S. State Department spokesman has held out this warning in the form of an observation: India was clearly "paying a very, very heavy price" for its nuclear explosions. Clinton's planned visit to India (around November 1998) has not been called off; it evidently depends on what precisely the Vajpayee government is willing to do in the next few weeks to mollify the United States and its allies.

* while noting that the responsibility for the present situation must be accepted by the BJP-led Government, the U.S.-led sanctions against India must be strongly opposed and exposed. The central political point is (in the words of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau statement of May 15, 1998) that "the nuclear weapon states and others who have all along supported an unequal and discriminatory nuclear order have no right, moral or otherwise, to impose sanctions on India." All political parties and all sections of the people must oppose and resist any intimidatory tactics and any attempt to 'punish' India.

* at a minimum, the immediate combined effect of the sanctions is likely to be serious for an economy that faces difficulties. The markets have reacted in a somewhat panicky way; the rupee is weaker than it was before the explosions; there are indications that the cost of foreign funds may shoot up; and so on. There is an immediate need to get a competent assessment of the likely overall impact of sanctions from an independent group of economists and business analysts.

* a major contradiction could develop between the Vajpayee Government's 'soft' pro-liberalisation economic policy and its hardline and hawkish nuclear policy. This will have unpredictable consequences for India. Some media commentators and editorials have proposed, by way of crisis management, some quick and significant measures of economic liberalisation that will further open up the economy and enhance the attractiveness of the Indian market to foreign investors. That this approach is likely to win official acceptance is suggested, for example, by the Government's decision to offer controversial counter-guarantees, of the kind extended to favour Enron, to three multinationals in the power sector.

* the BJP-led Government's nuclear policy could now swing from adventurism to compromise and appeasement.

In conclusion, it is clear that the Vajpayee Government's RSS-inspired nuclear hawkishness - as demonstrated in the Pokhran explosions and in the talk of nuclear weaponisation - has not served India's national and democratic interests at all. Unilateral and unprovoked conversion of the nuclear option into weapons backed by a delivery system will have very harmful consequences for peace and security in the region and especially for Sino-Indian and India-Pakistan relations, and will harm India's reputation internationally. The economic and political price for this act of adventurism is also likely to be stiff.

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