Playing the nuclear card

Print edition : August 28, 1999

THE release of the draft Indian Nuclear Doctrine was purposely timed by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led caretaker government to be as close to the general elections as possible. The document was reportedly cleared by the National Security Advisory Board ( NSAB) about two months earlier. Obviously, the idea behind releasing it on August 17 was to put the nuclear issue back on top of the election agenda. Brajesh Mishra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, told mediapersons that the document had no of ficial validity as it had not been approved by the government. He said that the purpose was to place it "before the public for debate and discussion".

Brajesh Mishra said that India would pursue a policy of credible nuclear deterrence. India, according to the document, will use nuclear weapons only in retaliation for a first strike: "Any nuclear attack on India and its forces will result in punitive re taliation with nuclear weapons to inflict damage unacceptable to the aggressor." According to the draft, "India's peacetime posture aims at convincing any potential aggressor that any threat of use of nuclear weapons against India will invoke measures to counter the threat." He says that nuclear weapons will be under tight supervision and will be released with specific authorisation from the Prime Minister. There is no mention about the possibility of India signing either the Comprehensive Test Ban Trea ty (CTBT) or the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The Opposition parties are furious at the caretaker government's decision to release the document at this juncture. The Congress(I) expressed the "apprehension" that the "irresponsible" observations contained in the document could spark an arms race. Par ty spokesman Pranab Mukherjee said that a caretaker government had "no business, politically and morally, to bring out a document of this nature which will affect the life of the entire subcontinent". The government was attempting to fool the people of I ndia by talking of "credible deterrence", he said.

Mukherjee noted that established nuclear powers such as the United States, Russia and France had conducted a large number of tests before they could acquire "credible deterrence". He observed that Pakistan sent in troops to Kargil despite India having "c redible nuclear deterrence". Mukherjee questioned the rationale behind bringing out a document when the Prime Minister had declared a moratorium on nuclear tests last year. Such an important issue, asserted Mukherjee, should have been first discussed in Parliament.

Former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral said that what the government did was "immoral" and that this instance was symptomatic of its unilateral way of formulating foreign policy. The BJP-led government, he said, had given up the tradition of having a national consensus on important foreign policy issues.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) described the circulation of the draft Indian Nuclear Doctrine as an "illegitimate act". CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Prakash Karat said: "The caretaker government has no business to act on such a critical matter havi ng serious implications for national and international security, just for petty electoral gains. This illegitimate nuclear doctrine must be rejected for what it is: nuclear sabre-rattling to garner votes for an irresponsible and jingoistic party."

According to Karat, the so-called nuclear doctrine advocates "full-fledged" nuclear weaponisation. "This is the real meaning of credible minimum nuclear deterrence," he said. As a result, there would be a nuclear arms race in the subcontinent and "the cr ushing burden of this nuclear adventurism will have to be borne by the ordinary people," he observed.

In a tit-for-tat response, Pakistan announced on August 19 that it was giving "final touches" to its own nuclear doctrine. Pakistan Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz said that his government's nuclear doctrine would be based on the proposed strategic nuclear restraint regime discussed between India and Pakistan during the Secretary-level talks last year. Aziz said that the Pakistan government was studying the Indian document. Pakistani officials, however, accuse India of resorting to gamesmanship by trying t o show the international community that India has developed its minimum nuclear deterrent as well as a command and control system. Pakistan's representative at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Munir Akram, said that the draft "indi cates that India is about to embark on further and even more dangerous escalation in the nuclear and conventional arms build-up".

Washington, which in recent months tilted towards New Delhi, was also quick to react. U.S. State Department officials have characterised India's move to develop a nuclear deterrent as "unwise". The U.S. spokesperson said that "nuclear weapons do not cont ribute to greater security in South Asia." He added that the draft document could be discussed when External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh met U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in New York in September. Jaswant Singh will be in New York to atte nd the U.N. General Assembly session.

The Clinton administration seems to have adopted a tough stance on the issue. The U.S. spokesperson said that the possession of missiles and nuclear weapons would give India and Pakistan "less and not more security". "We don't think it is in the national interest or the security interest of these countries to develop nuclear weapons capability, to develop an elaborate doctrine, and then to encourage an arms race by both India and Pakistan." In the second week of August, President Bill Clinton wrote to t he Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers urging them to exercise restraint and resume the Lahore dialogue process.

The Clinton administration's stance is getting tougher by the day. U.S. State Department officials now say that the Indian nuclear doctrine is against the interests of global security. The U.S. spokesman dismissed out of hand India's contention that it n eeded a nuclear deterrent to avert "possible nuclear blackmail by China". The Clinton administration is still of the view that India's decision to go nuclear was based on other factors. The Pentagon spokesman was more specific, saying that a nuclear conf lict was possible in the Indian subcontinent if tensions between India and Pakistan continued. "We have urged both sides to show restraint. It is an area where the damage would be extraordinary because of the large populations of the two countries," the Pentagon spokesperson said.

Other Group of Eight (G-8) member-countries have also reacted adversely to the draft Indian Nuclear Doctrine. The U.S. State Department once again reiterated the G-8's decision to continue to defer funding by international financial institutions of India 's non-basic human needs.

China has expressed its misgivings about the nuclear policy document. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson "urged" India not to induct nuclear missiles into its arsenal and to renounce its nuclear weapons programme by implementing U.N. Security Counci l Resolution 1172 "in earnest and comprehensively". In his Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee asserted that India would induct the Agni-II ballistic missile into its arsenal. The missile is capable of reaching many cities in Chi na. The Chinese spokesperson said: "On the South Asian nuclear issue, the Security Council unanimously adopted by consensus Resolution 1172, which reflects the will and embodies the position of the international community." Among the permanent members of the Security Council, China is the only country that has consistently emphasised the need to abide by Resolution 1172. "This is conducive to the prevention of an arms race in the region and to maintain security and stability. This also serves the fundam ental interests of the people of South Asia," the Chinese spokesperson asserted in the third week of August.

Reacting to mounting international criticism, Jaswant Singh, as was to be expected, discounted concerns about a possible India-Pakistan nuclear conflict. He has also insisted that India is not engaged in an arms race. At the same time, he has expressed h is willingness to discuss the draft Nuclear Doctrine with U.S. officials when he visits New York. "I am fully confident that we will be able to assuage the concerns that have been expressed in Washington and Beijing," he told journalists. He also asserte d, rather ingeniously, that the release of the document on the eve of the general elections was not a "politically contentious issue". He said that the document was not a National Security Council doctrine but a document of the National Security Advisory Board. He, however, admitted that the document said nothing new. It only reiterated what had been said earlier by Vajpayee and other senior officials, he said.

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