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Changing tack

Print edition : Dec 25, 2000

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The effort by the BJP-led Government to resurrect the debate on the CTBT process could involve a drastic revision of India's long-held nuclear position.

IT is life after death. Two months after it was given an inglorious burial by the U.S. Senate, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is being resurrected in Indian policy debates. Recent weeks have witnessed a succession of statements from the Governm ent about its intention to begin a broad-based process of consultations on the CTBT. The aim is evidently to evolve a new national consensus, in its substance the polar opposite of the views prevalent across the political spectrum till as recently as 199 8.

The effort by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government involves a drastic revision of India's nuclear posture as it has evolved over the years. In a recent interview, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh spelt out the basic tenets of the BJP's new re visionism: "Our stand on the CTBT has been clear. In 1996, we decided that we could not accept the CTBT because it was not consistent with India's national security interests. Over the decades, successive governments took necessary steps to safeguard Ind ia's nuclear option. In 1996, it was clear to all that subscription to the CTBT would have limited India's nuclear potential at an unacceptably low level. After conducting the nuclear tests of May 1998, to validate and update our technology, we have ensu red the credibility of our nuclear deterrent into the foreseeable future; our scientists are now confident of conducting sub-critical tests, as also other non-explosive R&D activity necessary for the purpose." (The Hindu, November 30, 1999).

For anybody who is familiar with all facets of the Indian position during the CTBT negotiations, these locutions must seem uncomfortably simplistic. "National security" came into the reckoning as a motivating factor for India virtually at the last gasp, when the draft of the CTBT had been agreed at the Conference on Disarmament (C.D.) in Geneva, and every nation was required to state an unambiguous position. Even so, it was hedged around by a number of other commitments, notably those towards ending res earch on nuclear arms and working out a time-table for the elimination of these weapons of mass destruction.

In March 1996, Foreign Secretary Salman Haidar put India's case before the C.D. in the following terms: "We do not believe that the acquisition of nuclear weapons is essential for national security, and we have followed a conscious decision in this regar d. We are also convinced that the existence of nuclear weapons diminishes international security. We therefore, seek their complete elimination."

Just a few months earlier, India had put forward an impassioned plea before the International Court of Justice at The Hague, as the court deliberated on the legality of nuclear arms: "Use of nuclear weapons in any armed conflict... even by way of reprisa l or retaliation... is unlawful... Since the production and manufacture of nuclear weapons can only be with the objective of their use, it must follow that... their production and manufacture cannot under any circumstances be considered as permitted... T he threat of use of nuclear weapons in any circumstance, whether as a means or method of warfare or otherwise, is illegal and unlawful under international law."

THIS fundamental alteration of a deep pacifist commitment into an uncritical willingness to build and deploy an arsenal of nuclear weapons is comprehensible in terms of two connected events: the ascent to power of the BJP in March 1998 and its precipitat e decision to detonate nuclear explosions in the Rajasthan desert some two months later. This was followed by an expected level of international outcry and a phase of disorientation and strategic confusion in political circles. Without a defined mandate or locus standi, Jaswant Singh, then Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, initiated a long-running dialogue with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, ostensibly with the aim of restoring a sense of order to bilateral relations. Th e moves now being initiated in the domestic political arena could credibly be read as the logical finale of this dialogue. Its final reward, an outcome that the BJP-led Government seems dearly to wish for, is a visit by the U.S. President to India in 200 0, before the election process transforms Bill Clinton into a lame-duck chief executive.

The CTBT dialogue is already under way within the community of nuclear-strategic analysts. It is partly premised on the public affirmation by the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, R. Chidambaram, that the Indian nuclear deterrent can be built and credibly maintained on the basis of available knowledge. Implicitly this has been a prevalent motif in all official statements issued by the AEC since the Pokhran tests of May 1998.

In 1996, India criticised the CTBT for its failure to put an end to the qualitative improvement of nuclear weapons through sub-critical testing and computer simulations. On the day of the first tests in May 1998, a statement by the Government drew pointe d attention to India's intent to utilise precisely these lacunae of the treaty: "These tests... are expected to carry Indian scientists towards a sound computer simulation capability which may be supported by sub-critical experiments, if considered neces sary."

Precisely these points were underlined in a joint statement issued by the Department of Atomic Energy and the Defence Research and Development Organisation on May 17, 1998: "These tests have significantly enhanced our capability in computer simulation of new designs and taken us to the stage of sub-critical experiments in the future, if considered necessary."

Declarations of intent and ability in the nuclear realm have the curious property that they are easily taken as authentic, since the risks involved in putting them to the test are forbidding. These statements of the nuclear science establishment provided the basis for Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee's statement in Parliament in December 1998 that India would maintain a moratorium on nuclear testing, but proceed with establishing a "minimum nuclear deterrent".

This provided the broad political guidance for the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) to put together a draft Indian Nuclear Doctrine in August 1999. The suspension of democratic accountability in an electoral interregnum did not seem to deter the N SAB as it set about crafting a doctrine of "minimum credible deterrence". In the formal sense, the draft nuclear doctrine marked a decisive break with India's time-honoured commitment to the position that deterrence in the nuclear realm is little more th an a form of self-delusion.

CLEARLY, the dialogue on the CTBT will also involve an effort by the Government to win broad political endorsement for the doctrine of "minimum credible deterrence". The naysayers in this context take their inspiration from two diametrically opposite poi nts of the political spectrum. The right-wing element insists that the Pokhran tests have not yet validated the range of weapons options that India will need to explore in order to establish a deterrent force. And since the momentum for a global nuclear test ban has faltered on account of the Senate's rejection of the CTBT, they insist that India should retain its options for a while longer.

The Left-wing element points out, with great credibility, that the history of the nuclear age amply shows how it is futile to expect a programme of weapons induction to remain constrained by minimalist strivings. But from this fairly robust premise, a di vergence of tactical approaches is apparent. One group of Left-wing strategic thinkers believes that the CTBT in being a definite, if incomplete, measure of restraint, would have a positive effect in dampening the dangerous spiral of militarist rhetoric. Another group maintains that the original reasons that led India to reject the CTBT remain, which provides no substantive basis for the country to recant. Both groups, however, concur on the need to throw the doctrine of "minimum credible deterrence" ou t of court and to resume dialogue with hostile neighbours on the understanding that the nuclear threat would be kept out of the bargain.

The political parties are yet to articulate clearly their positions, since they claim to be awaiting a formal invitation to dialogue from the Government. K. Natwar Singh, convener of the Congress(I)'s foreign policy cell, insists that it is for the Gover nment to state its position first. The kind of "private enterprise" practised by Jaswant Singh in his dialogue with Strobe Talbott has no place in evolving a policy consensus, says Natwar Singh.

Mani Shankar Aiyar, another influential foreign policy commentator within the Congress(I), believes that the Government's motives in seeking accession to the CTBT are fundamentally flawed. Jaswant Singh's brief in negotiating the terms of accession has o bviously been to secure the relaxation of the sanctions and technology denial regimes that the U.S. put in place after India's nuclear tests. This, in turn, would only be used to buttress India's claims to being a military power with a nuclear capability . Mani Shankar Aiyar decries the entire effort to tie up India's position on a major international treaty with Clinton's visit. If India believes that it is in a position to win concessions from the U.S., then it should stay focussed on the goal of unive rsal nuclear disarmament. Towards this cause, Mani Shankar Aiyar recently put together a team of international law experts to update the Rajiv Gandhi disarmament proposals that were presented to the U.N. General Assembly in 1988. His initiative awaits th e formal approval of higher councils within the Congress(I).

The Left parties are sceptical of the Government's latest moves on the CTBT. They believe that the deeper purpose is to arrive at an accommodation with the U.S. that would accord a degree of recognition to India's strategic pre-eminence in the region. Ho wever, this will be at the cost of rising tensions with already estranged neighbours.

Pre-eminence and peace may be conflicting objectives in a volatile and impoverished region. And nuclear arms clearly are no remedy for the fundamental problems afflicting South Asia.

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