Modernity ushered in with a bang

India's Nuclear Bomb - New Nukes
June 30, 2000

President Bill Clinton's recent visit to South Asia once again highlighted the United States's determination to corral India and Pakistan within the global framework of nuclear non-proliferation. Since the arrival of these two states as the newest members of the nuclear club, they have fought a short border war during which their political leadership exchanged direct or indirect threats to use nuclear weapons 13 times. Despite a peace brokered by the US, the line of control in Kashmir remains the most dangerous place in the world, with the potential to make South Asia the most likely site for a "small" nuclear war.

George Perkovich's study is the most authoritative and exhaustive account so far of the development of India's nuclear programme since independence. This meticulously researched volume is an outstanding contribution to a subject mired in deliberate misunderstandings. What makes it strikingly original is that it draws on a wealth of available data, interviews with leading actors and recently declassified documents, which provide fresh insights into decision-making in India as well as the profound concerns of US South Asia strategists.

The central puzzle that Perkovich seeks to explain is why for so long India failed fully to conform to the "structural realism" model, which predicts that states' nuclear policies are largely determined by their security concerns. The answer we are given is that there were unresolved tensions: between India's desire to assume the moral leadership of the international community as the homeland of non-violence and its hankering for great power status; between the need to direct scarce resources into economic and social development and the real threats to the "soft" state's nation-building in the peripheral regions; and between the advocacy of international nuclear disarmament and the outrage at the apartheid practised by the five nuclear powers. These competing pulls, Perkovich notes, made India a "frequently hypocritical and frustrating gadfly".

During Nehru's time, such tensions were resolved by the dual policy of "moral aversion" to nuclear weapons while the nuclear option was kept open.Nehru, like Homi Bhabha, who headed the Atomic Energy Commission, shared the belief that nuclear technology offered a shortcut to modernity with the promise of endless cheap energy that was so crucial to the plans for rapid industrialisation. Substantial resources were made available to the AEC while Nehru's patronage and personal involvement protected the "strategic enclave" (the military-security-scientific establishment) from close scrutiny. Only after the 1962 Indo-China war and the subsequent explosion of an atomic device by China was there a decisive shift towards demonstrating India's nuclear capability. Even then, the commitment was fraught with uncertainty and qualified by hard economic realities as India grappled with near-famine conditions in the mid-1960s. Indira Gandhi's decision to go ahead with the explosion of a "peaceful" nuclear device in 1974 was therefore a careful balancing act between the demands of the "strategic enclave" and domestic political compulsions.

So what changed in the 1990s? Pakistan's clandestine nuclear and rocket programme, supported by China, raised the stakes while India's own development programmes edged the country towards crossing the nuclear threshold. At the same time the pressure to comply with the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty appeared to limit the window of opportunity for testing India's nuclear prowess. But the decisive turn came with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in March 1998. Sharing none of the traditional ambiguities of the Congress, the BJP saw in the nuclear issue the potential to signal the emergence of India as a major power state where realpolitik would replace official humbug. At the time, euphoria concealed the true reasons for the decision to go nuclear; the subsequent absence of a coherent national strategy suggests that it was taken essentially for political effect. The confusion surrounding a credible nuclear deterrent remains. More seriously, there has been no informed public discussion of the likely economic costs of a powerful nuclear India.

The strength of Perkovich's work is in the detailed narrative of the constraints within which India's policy-makers responded to the nuclear challenge. He successfully debunks many illusions, including the claim that India's bomb was solely the result of self-reliance. His efforts to draw broad generalisations about non-proliferation from the Indian case are more doubtful. India does not necessarily invalidate "structural realism" or the widely assumed belief that democracies "tend to support non-proliferation objectives". The apparent popularity of nuclear tests in India and Pakistan (which was under civilian rule at the time) soon ebbed away, reflecting perhaps the real aim among the political elites in both countries: to craft issues of national identity around national security. It is certainly premature to announce that uncontested nuclear nationalism is now a firmly embedded feature of politics in India and Pakistan.

Indeed, New Nukes is a provocative counterpoint to such claims. Written in a polemical style by two well-known journalists, its audience is the anti-nuclear peace activists and non-governmental organisations, sympathetic decision-makers within government and the general public. The volume opens with an introduction by Arundhati Roy that has already been a source of controversy. Her passionate denunciation of nuclear weapons ends in a forthright assertion: "India's (read also Pakistan's) nuclear bomb is the final act of betrayal by a ruling class that has failed its people." The "truth", she points out, "is that it is far easier to make a bomb than to educate 400 million people".

Roy's moral outrage is worth its own volume, but Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik choose instead to place their argument within the general debate about global nuclear disarmament, which, according to them, must incorporate the experience of the South, where "rogue" nuclear states are likely to grow. Much of the coverage is devoted to reassessing the conventional case for global nuclear disarmament in light of the changes in the nuclear status quo, the emergence of new nuclear weapon states and the ineffectiveness of machinery in making sound progress towards denuclearisation. Overall, there is an abundance of the familiar. Old-left cliches abound, but neglect of the detailed consequences of political nuclearisation in South Asia is obvious.

It is a little-known fact that since the tests, peace movements have mushroomed in India and Pakistan. The book largely ignores their activities because, to be fair, its main objective seems to be to set a new global agenda. I wish Bidwai and Vanaik had reflected more on the political economy of nuclearisation, its impact on ordinary lives. As it is, the ultimate logic of learning to live with the bomb in developing countries is left to Roy to explain: "And when our larders are bursting with bombs and our bellies are empty," she concludes, "we can trade bombs for food."

Gurharpal Singh is professor of Indian politics, University of Hull.

India's Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation

Author - George Perkovich
ISBN - 0 520 217721
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 575

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