What the Vajpayee Government is up to

Print edition : July 18, 1998

THERE has been an orchestrated propaganda campaign, and a good deal of hype, in the media over the import of the talks between the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, and Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee's peripatetic special emissary, Jaswant Singh, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission. An impression has been sought to be created, through a mystification of the issues at stake, that these talks in three rounds and three different venues are about to produce a via media solution to the mess created by the nuclear adventurism of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government.

The most interesting thing that has been revealed on record about the character and agenda of the talks is what Talbott himself told The Hindu in an interview: the two sides "have begun a genuinely strategic dialogue with a small 's' and a small 'd'. Whether we can return to the strategic dialogue with a capital 'S' and a capital 'D' depends on how much we do over the coming months." What does this mean?

THE first thing to be noted about the Jaswant-Talbott talks is the modest, fairly low level of the bilateral dialogue - something that would certainly not warrant capital letters. It is surely significant that neither Jaswant Singh, a senior BJP politician, nor any Cabinet Minister in the Vajpayee Government has been able to reach the level of an engagement on the issues at stake with the sharp-tongued and hardline U.S. Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. The U.S. approach to the dialogue is clear: it is based on the assessment that the BJP-led Government and the India it governs are badly caught in a pincer movement of economic sanctions, escalated regional tensions, and the pressure of the tough political demands that have been formulated quite precisely in Washington, Geneva, New York and London.

There is nothing secret about what the Clinton administration, along with its allies, wants from India. The three key political demands being pressed post-Pokhran-II are: (1) sign and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) quickly and unconditionally; (2) participate positively, and on the basis of the agreed mandate, in the negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva on the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT); and (3) undo the nuclear weaponisation and the missile programme announced. Post-Chagai, the same demands have been pressed on Pakistan, but India has been clearly identified as the principal target.

The U.S. objective in the 'strategic dialogue' with Jaswant Singh is to soften up India's nuclear and foreign policies so that these demands can be won sooner rather than later. What Talbott is looking for cannot really be very different from the specifics demanded by the G-8 Foreign Ministers' meeting in London. It is a stick-and-carrots approach with the stick clearly predominating: the episode of the U.S. Senate task force holding out hope of a general easing of sanctions, but eventually coming up merely with the proposed reinstatement of the U.S. Agriculture Department's export credit programme for Pakistan and India, is instructive.

BUT does anything in the BJP-led Government's response suggest that it is capable of standing up to such flagrant double standards on the nuclear issue? It is an open secret that Prime Minister Vajpayee is in low spirits, in a kind of political numbness if not depression over what Pokhran-II has wrought. What is equally clear is that his Government lacks the courage of its convictions.

There is some residual resistance, evidenced in Vajpayee's occasional public assurances on not signing the CTBT "unconditionally" - a meaningless stance since there is no quid pro quo to be wrested in terms relevant to the CTBT, and the treaty is not up for amendment - and not abandoning the nuclear weapon and missile programme under external pressure.

But the signal is out that the BJP-led Government is no longer fundamentally opposed to the Unequal Global Nuclear Bargain (UGNB), 'nuclear apartheid' expressed in the NPT division of the world into a nuclear weapons club and the rest, the NPT's corollaries such as the CTBT and the FMCT to come, the obnoxious and pseudo-scientific doctrine of nuclear deterrence pioneered and practised by the United States, and the non-proliferation control regime.

The irony is that when the old nuclear policy - characterised by its pursuit of independence, its conditional self-restraint, its non-military orientation, its refusal to come into the UGNB, and its high ground moral and political arguments - was at work, India's nuclear option and leverage in international nuclear dealings could be preserved and even strengthened. India might not have succeeded in shaping negotiations, but its principled policy resistance to the UGNB and the intelligent use of its leverage to push for movement towards global nuclear disarmament won respect in the developing world and among progressive and democratic constituencies in developed countries. The policy contained within itself the potential for weakening the UGNB and furthering the cause of nuclear disarmament over the medium and long terms.

THE reality is that after Pokhran-II, India's leverage against the UGNB has been undermined. This is the unstated secret understanding that frames the Talbott-Jaswant dialogue as well as the labours of Brajesh Mishra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, and former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral on behalf of the Vajpayee Government.

Careful scientific appraisals of Pokhran-II and Chagai suggest that the nuclear weapon capabilities of both India and Pakistan, backed by some kind of basic nuclear-capable delivery systems, must be taken seriously. But what the tests have achieved has clearly been exaggerated on both sides. Admiral L. Ramdas (Retd.), former Chief of the Naval Staff, and some other senior former representatives of the armed services have challenged the claim that India and Pakistan have, through the 11 claimed explosions, become real nuclear weapon states with some kind of credible 'minimum nuclear deterrence'.

In an authoritative assessment, Admiral Ramdas points out, check-list in hand, that India lacks the various elements that real nuclear weaponisation takes: a Nuclear Doctrine and a Nuclear Strategy; an efficient Command, Control, Communication and Intelligence System; an elaborate system to operate the Nuclear Trigger; Permissive Action Links (PAL) technologies to "safeguard against the accidental or wanton deployment of nuclear weapons"; early warning systems through satellite reconnaissance, air borne early warning, interception with sophisticated electronic systems, agents, etc.; Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) systems; extremely sensitive radar systems; nuclear shelters and civil defence training, protective clothing, etc.; equipping the armed forces for nuclear warfare; and so on. Admiral Ramdas shows, with a few telling ballpark figures, that all this will entail a tremendous escalation in defence expenditure - a profligate, socially disastrous diversion of scarce resources needed elsewhere.

INDIA'S real objections to the CTBT can be summed up as follows: (a) as a corollary of the NPT, it was bent on perpetuating the discriminatory nuclear order since the nuclear weapon states would be left sitting pretty on their nuclear arsenals containing an estimated 35,000 nuclear weapons, and the results of their more than 2,000 nuclear explosions; (b) the nuclear weapon states were refusing to commit themselves to any time-bound disarmament schedule; and (c) the nuclear weapon states had written loopholes into the treaty which would permit them, while maintaining their active stockpiles, to continue refining and developing their nuclear arsenals at their test sites and in their laboratories (through sub-critical experiments or SCEs, computer simulation and the development of new technologies).

Further, Article IV and the verification protocol provide for a tough verification regime which will rest on an International Monitoring System and on-site inspections that could, under certain circumstances, prove unacceptably intrusive. India won world attention by standing up against the inequitable and seriously flawed treaty and especially its near-coercive Article XIV providing for Entry Into Force (EIF). In effect, by throwing the burden of the CTBT coming into force on India's shoulders, by making India accountable for the treaty not entering into force and its consequences and by fixing a deadline (September 24, 1999), Article XIV of the CTBT represents a direct demand on India's sovereignty and also an ultimatum.

The question for the Vajpayee Government is: how have the five Pokhran explosions removed these basic objections which involve principles and are also linked to national security considerations?

IN an interview to Frontline (July 3, 1998), Arundhati Ghose, retired Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva and the key official who represented India in the final stages of the CTBT negotiations and brilliantly articulated the policy stand, placed the matter in perspective. The nuclear weapon states, leaving out every issue affecting their nuclear weapons and the UGNB, "picked up the CTBT and the FMCT" (which were "not relevant" to non-nuclear weapon NPT signatories) to "capture the three" threshold states outside the NPT regime, India, Pakistan and Israel. In effect, India became the real target of the determined effort "to try and freeze the... status quo, and draw everyone into a particular architecture."

India's opposition, Ghose made it clear, could not be reduced to the national security argument: "In the CTBT we made it clear that we could not be expected not to look at our national security concerns. What we were projecting was that our security lay in a world without nuclear weapons."

India's stated official position has been that the CTBT negotiations were, in the words of External Affairs Minister Gujral, "a charade." Challenging the view that the post-Pokhran-II situation called for signing the CTBT, Ghose asked: "And now, are we going to join this same charade? Are we such hypocrites? We would let down not only the people in India who were led to believe something, we would let down a lot of countries who shared our position... In other words, we do not mind an unequal treaty, provided we are on the side of those who are stronger... this is not India. Quite apart from the fact that this treaty is full of loopholes and legitimates espionage."

But joining an FMCT would have far more drastic consequences for the Indian nuclear programme. As Ghose points out, the CTBT was brought on the agenda when the nuclear weapon states had completed their programme of explosive tests. On top of their nuclear arsenals, they have huge stocks of weapons grade fissile material, that is, highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium. In their own determination, there is no need for any further production of fissile material for weapons purposes. In fact, all the five nuclear weapon states have declared that they have stopped producing HEU and plutonium for weapons purposes.

The CTBT provides for a verification regime involving international monitoring and on-site inspections following an alleged 'event'. But the FMCT will be far more intrusive. By prohibiting fissile material production outside safeguards, it will bring in prospective full-scope safeguards which will surely undermine, and make nonsense of, India's decision to stay outside the NPT regime and the UGNB. If India is willing to sign an FMCT in line with the 'agreed mandate', then it might as well sign the NPT as a state dwelling in Trisankuland and derive the benefits offered by that treaty.

WHAT precisely is this 'agreed mandate'? President Bill Clinton first called for the cut-off negotiations in his September 1993 address to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA): his proposal was a multilateral agreement to halt the production of HEU and plutonium for use in nuclear explosives or outside of international safeguards. In December 1993, the UNGA adopted a consensus resolution (48/75L) on cut-off, calling for the negotiation of a "non-discriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other explosive devices."

The resolution called for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to provide assistance in examining verification arrangements. In March 1995, the Conference on Disarmament decided by consensus to establish an Ad Hoc Committee with a mandate to negotiate a cut-off treaty based on the 1993 UNGA resolution. In May 1995, the parties to the NPT agreed, at the NPT Review and Extension Conference in New York, to seek "the immediate commencement and early conclusion" of cut-off negotiations.

Although the FMCT negotiations in Geneva have been delayed on account of certain technical differences among the nuclear weapon states and some policy-based opposition from developing countries, notably India, it is clear that this treaty has been a high priority for the United States. It has become a far higher priority post-Pokhran and post-Chagai. The FMCT will serve the purpose of 'capping, rolling back and eventually eliminating' India's nuclear weapon capability while leaving the huge stockpiles of the nuclear weapon states in place.

This is why Prime Minister Gujral, in May 1997, announced at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) that there was no question of India signing this treaty that was going to be negotiated in Geneva. In July 1998, two months after Pokhran-II, the country finds itself weaker and more vulnerable to Washington-led international arm-twisting and pressures than at any time in recent memory. As a direct payoff for adventurism and hawkishness, its 'nuclear option' is close to being eroded. How to make such a denouement palatable is essentially what the Talbott-Jaswant talks are about.

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