Pokhran: expensive folly

Published : Mar 04, 2000 00:00 IST


India's Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation by George Perkovich; Oxford University Press; pages 597, Rs. 645.

Selected Documents on Nuclear Disarmament edited by K. R. Gupta; Atlantic Publishers and Distributors; Vol. I, pages 288; Vol. II pages 289 to 604, Rs. 495 for each volume.

THE most remarkable features of George Perkovich's definitive history of India's nuclear policy from 1947 to 1998 are its pronounced empathy for India and emphasis on the inequitable conduct of the nuclear haves. These make his critique of India's policy , based on hitherto unpublished material and interviews with Indians and Americans in the know, all the more devastating. Evolution of nuclear policy is analysed throughout in the context of the course of India's foreign policy and its domestic politics. The play of personalities is not neglected. There are interesting comments on personal equations and angularities.

George Perkovich is the author of a widely noted article in Foreign Policy (Summer, 1993) entitled "A Nuclear Third Way in South Asia" in which he described the "non-weaponised deterrence" and pointed out the folly of actual weaponisation. It is n ow established beyond doubt that both Pokhran-I in 1974 and Pokhran-II in 1998 were staged for reasons of domestic politics in folie de grandeur which also inspired P. V. Narasimha Rao's aborted venture in 1996 on the eve of the 1996 Lok Sabha ele ctions.

The politicians are not the only ones to be blamed for the folie de grandeur. "The strategic enclave of scientists/technologists has driven India's quest for nuclear weapon capability. Beginning with Homi Bhabha in the late 1940s, leading scientis ts and engineers pressed political leaders to accelerate the development and demonstration of nuclear weapon capabilities. This process peaked once in 1974 when the top scientists persuaded Indira Gandhi to authorise the nuclear test at Pokhran. Atomic E nergy Commission and Defence Research and Development Organisation scientists subsequently pressed for additional tests and other steps to develop a nuclear arsenal. Their influence peaked again in the 1995-1998 period, culminating in the test of a therm onuclear device that had no articulated strategic or doctrinal necessity but that capped the careers of retirement-aged scientists. History suggests that even if India signs the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Indian weaponeers will continue to press for unending programmes to refine nuclear warheads and, more important, extend the range and diversity of missile systems."

The disturbing comments by T. Jayaraman ('Of scientists and nukes'; Frontline; June 19, 1998) receive full support in the book. They have not been too candid to the public, as Perkovich points out. "A.P.J. Abdul Kalam said D-day was set for thirty days from April 10. This dating made decision seem to come in response to Pakistan's Ghauri missile test (April 6), but there is reason to think that the tests were authorised earlier, shortly after March 28". A footnote provides one of the many revelat ions in the work. The author's assertion was based not only on his interview "with a generally knowledgeable Indian source" but also "U.S. government analysts" who, "citing technical reasons, also believed the decision was authorised prior to April 8."

Atal Behari Vajpayee was sworn in Prime Minister on March 19, 1998. He consulted the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), R. Chidambaram, the very next day. But Abdul Kalam had been consulted "days before he was sworn in". It was a manifestly off-the-cuff decision. Indeed, in 1996 even before he asked the Lok Sabha for its vote of confidence, Vajpayee gave the two "the signal to proceed with nuclear weapon tests" they had been longing for. He however took "at least two advisers... into confid ence" and was dissuaded from proceeding ahead.

Meanwhile, one nuclear explosive had been emplaced in a test shaft. This was vaguely known. What was not known is that "The Indian scientists sought to seize the opportunity afforded by the BJP's nuclear hawkishness as quickly as possible, increasing pre parations even before the BJP formed a government."

Perkovich confirms Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat's statement that George Fernandes was not in the picture. "The Prime Minister had not informed him of nuclear policy." Jaswant Singh, Brajesh Mishra and "perhaps L. K. Advani" were.

"The tests were a bold statement and bid for Indian power in the international system. But the public declarations of government officials betrayed the absence of a coherent, analytically buttressed national security strategy. The driving forces behind t he tests - the scientists and engineers - could claim to expertise in military-strategic affairs or international relations, nor any deep understanding of how nuclear weapons would affect India's relations with Pakistan, China, the United States, and others over the mid and long terms.

"Indian officials wanted the tests to serve or at least not detract from seven objectives to win recognition of India as a major power: to catch up to China in terms of status and strategic deterrence; to reassert technological and strategic superiority over Pakistan; to bolster the expertise, morale, and recruitment of BARC and the DRDO; to strengthen national defence at low cost while maintaining civilian control over nuclear policy; to maintain moral standing as an advocate of nuclear disarmament; an d, to boost the BJP government's internal position."

The author records that, as in 1974, the euphoria generated by Pokhran-II was short-lived. "...The international community did not increase its respect of India or grant it greater influence. Pakistan had practically matched India in effective nuclear po wer and recast India not as the pre-eminent South Asian state but as part of an unstable India-Pak dyad whose conflict over Kashmir and potential nuclear and missile competition must be managed above all else."

The situation has become graver, still. Diplomatic channels are clogged. Leaders on both sides merrily boast about the gains of their nuclear status. The situation in Kashmir deteriorates by the day, meanwhile. Neither side desires war. But there can be a replay of Sarajevo in 1914; a war none wanted but to which each side was driven by miscalculation based on ignorance of the dangers of "limited war."

The opening salvo in the debate was fired, without any provocation by Pakistan's Chief Executive Gen. Pervez Musharraf on January 4. He told the CNN: "Since the dispute (Kashmir) is there and since we both are nuclear powers now, the danger of any confli ct expanding into any nuclear conflagration has lessened." Asked under what conditions Pakistan would be prepared to use nuclear weapons, he said "if the security of Pakistan is threatened; surely we would not allow it to die."

Defence Minister George Fernandes replied on January 5, significantly just after addressing a seminar on "Challenges of Limited War." He told the media: "There is a perception in Pakistan that its nuclear status ensured that the covert war could continue ... because India would be deterred by the nuclear factor." But, "conventional war remains feasible, though with definite limitations if escalation across the nuclear threshold is to be avoided." Future wars would be limited wars, a theme which the Chief of the Army Staff, Gen. V. P. Malik, echoed at the seminar the next day. "War may well remain limited because of credible deterrence." He added pointedly: "The Strategy adopted for Kargil, including the LoC (Line of Control) constraints, may not be appl icable to the next war."

Musharraf rejoined on January 22: "Indians are not refraining (sic) from crossing the LoC out of any love for Pakistan," he said, implying that the bomb did work as a deterrent. This prompted Fernandes to repeat, on January 24, that it can deter only the use of nuclear weapons, but not all and any war. A conventional war "has not been made obsolete by nuclear weapons."

The fatuity of this exchange was exposed in a brilliant critique by Lt. Gen. V. R. Raghavan, former Director-General of Military Operations: "The Minister's statement can only be interpreted as reflecting the Government's belief that it will fight a limi ted war, unconcerned with the new strategic realities in the subcontinent. The assumption that Kargil was a limited war will not stand scrutiny. Kargil was a series of local military actions, albeit fought with great heroism, to clear Indian territory of intruders... A future war on the lines of the 1965 and 1971 wars, or even of the low-level military campaign of 1948, will have a high probability of jumping the nuclear threshold. The choice of keeping the war limited cannot entirely be in India n hands. The threshold of tolerance which triggers the adversary's nuclear weapons choice will always remain a matter of conjecture."

Neither side would risk seeing its bomb fail to serve as a deterrent in a limited war. Use of N-weapons will be a strong temptation. "A limited military success will then translate into national disaster" (The Hindu, February 2, 2000).

On February 3, Pakistan set up a National Command Authority with an apex Employment Control Committee for command and control of its nuclear weapons. On February 6, Vajpayee diluted India's stand by indicating, as a correspondent reported, that it "would review its commitment to no-first-use of nuclear weapons if Pakistan continued to foster terrorism in Kashmir..." (The Telegraph, February 7). The Prime Minister said in Jalandhar: "Though we have committed ourselves to no-first-use of nuclear we apons, it does not mean that we will not use it to safeguard the integrity and unity of the country."

Is India any the more secure after Pokhran-II or is the sub-continent a safer place after the Pokhran-II and Chagai tests? As for China, Perkovich says: "By the late 1990s Indian conventional forces were clearly capable of successfully defending against Chinese conventional attack. If they were not, India's insistence that it would not use nuclear weapons first in a conflict would be self-defeating, as it would presume that China could overwhelm India conventionally without recourse to nuclear weapons a nd New Delhi would let this happen rather than use nuclear weapons first. In this case, why possess these weapons at all? If the need for nuclear weapons rested on deterring Chinese nuclear threats or attack, not conventional aggression, then the case wa s weak"... In 1998, however, India was far from developing and producing missiles that reliably could reach major Chinese targets, and even further from deploying a survivable submarine-based arsenal."

Nuclear hawks touted the bomb as a "currency of power" precisely as that currency was being steadily devalued. The source of major power in the new global system is economics. "At the end of the twentieth century, China is seen as an emerging great power because of its economic growth, not its nuclear arsenal. The rankings of countries like Germany, Japan, South Korea, and others in the international system depend on their economic status." India is nowhere near acquiring status as a great power or a pe rmanent seat on the Security Council. Domestically, even after the tests, there is no consensus on what India's nuclear doctrine should be. Nuclear weapons alter the character of the state that acquires them.

The work is addressed as much to the Americans as it is to Indians. "The Indian experience suggests that the United States and the other four nuclear 'haves' cannot indefinitely keep other states from acquiring nuclear weapons unless the five reverse course and dedicate themselves to creating the condition for the elimination of nuclear weapons. The contrary view constitutes one of the illusions that India has exploded..."

Even Dulles acknowledged, on February 3, 1956, that "it would be difficult for nations to forgo permanently their right to make nuclear weapons while the U.S., USSR and U.K. continue to make them."

The possibility that India might go into the nuclear weapons business was noted by Isador Rabi, Chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, as far back as in 1955. The author's resume suggests that American policy was even more confused and incoherent . There is every reason to believe that, despite all the talk of morality and expression of horrow, both Jawaharlal Nehru and Homi Bhabha moved discreetly to acquire a nuclear option for its eventual exercise. Nehru's letter to Defence Minister Baldev Si ngh on February 29, 1948, clearly suggested that. The author sums up correctly "the many twists and turns of India's nuclear history: Bhabha's and Nehru's hope to launch India into the upper ranks of modern, powerful states; Bhabha's plans in the mid 195 0s to acquire weapon-grade plutonium, kept free from international safeguards; Nehru and Bhabha's subtle invocation of India's latent nuclear weapon capability as a deterrent, in 1960; Lal Bahadur Shastri's compromise with Bhabha to allow initial work on peaceful nuclear explosives in the aftermath of China's nuclear test in 1964. Then Bhabha's successor, Vikram Sarabhai, tried to stop studies on nuclear explosives and Indira Gandhi concentrated on domestic challenges while India struggled to effect a n uclear non-Proliferation Treaty that would commit the world to nuclear disarmament. The course twisted back in early 1968 when a handful of scientists and engineers took the initiative to reinvigorate nuclear explosive design work. In late 1970 and 1971, Indira Gandhi indicated that India was interested in conducting peaceful nuclear explosions. In 1972, after victory over Pakistan in the 1971 war, she opted to proceed toward conducting a nuclear explosion, which occurred finally in 1974, without benefi t of a clear national security strategy."

The U.S. woke up to non-proliferation late in the day; and, when it did, it was only to preserve the monopoly of the nuclear "haves." At the end of the book, the author explodes the myth that "equitable disarmament is unnecessary for non-proliferation." He reveals that during U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's visit to India in October 1974, an attempt was made to arrive at a compromise. The U.S., without reducing its own arsenal, would restrain India from acquiring one - while accepting the f ait accompli of Pokhran in realpolitik: "In any case, they wanted India to consider allowing 'external safeguards' on all its chemical reprocessing plants to 'establish the amount of plutonium produced and account for the disposition of such plutoniu m.' The Americans emphasised that this 'would not preclude the use of this material as necessary for designated explosives applications,' a position that would have set blood boiling in nonproliferation activists in Washington. The proposals reflected th e Kissinger team's insight that pressuring India not to conduct further tests could 'strengthen public support for future tests.' ... Kissinger then offered to send U.S. nuclear experts quietly to India to work with Indian scientists to ensure that nu clear materials and potential explosive devices would be managed with a premium on safety and international security. To this end, he proposed that the two states conduct a quiet dialogue on nuclear issues." No Strobe Talbott came in 1974, however.

Another disclosure shows Z. A. Bhutto's skills in diplomatic language which he had displayed at Shimla in 1972. In February 1975, American officials "extracted a secret, written note from the Pakistanis during Bhutto's February visit. The note stated tha t 'In developing its nuclear technology, Pakistan would not divert any of its urgently needed development resources to the expensive efforts required to produce a nuclear explosion provided its defence in the conventional field is assured.' When parsed i n hindsight, this revealing note did not preclude efforts to produce nuclear explosives."

The work answers three questions and dispels some illusions. "Why has India developed its nuclear weapon capability when it has and the way it has? What are the factors that keep India from stopping or reversing its nuclear weapon programme? What effects has the United States had on India's nuclear intentions and capabilities?"

It dispels the illusion that security concerns decisively determined the move to acquire N-weapons. "In another illusion, Indian nuclear scientists beginning with Homi Bhabha built a reputation as men of great prowess and technical self-reliance, when in fact many of Bhabha's and his successors' claims proved hollow. The strategic enclave, notwithstanding its talents, depended extensively on foreign technology and know-how, and required more time than commonly recognised to produce effective nuclear wea pons. Yet another illusion is that nuclear weapons offered a shortcut to great power status in the modern world. By the early 1990s, it became more apparent that economic strength and political stability were the primary sources of usable power, not nucl ear weapons. Thus, India's scientists, engineers, and ardent nationalists were frustrated in their desire to rocket India into great power status in part because their enterprise required a more robust economy and stable polity for a launching pad."

What of the future? Perkovich is emphatically of the view that there must be clearer commitment to nuclear disarmament by all states. The nuclear arsenals of the P5 "undermine efforts to persuade India to abandon" its nuclear capability.

The narrative ends at the beginning of 1999. The pressing need now is accord on an acceptable definition of nuclear restraint. India's Nuclear Doctrine goes against it, fundamentally.

Dr. K. R. Gupta's handy collection of documents includes texts of the Doctrine, the CTBT, NPT, Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty), ABM (Anti Ballistic Missile), Missile Technology Control Regime, the Biological Weapo ns Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention. A sparsely informative introduction knits them together.

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