Whether India will retain the right to carry out Pokhran III or IV has become the political litmus test of the India-US civilian nuclear test. This reflects a curious development: Indian foreign policy initiatives are getting increasingly mired in poorly informed debates over sovereignty.
The nuclear deal works at many levels. The most important of them is that it gives India a seat at the nuclear high table. Another is that it starts the process of bringing to an end the existing sanctions on dual use technology. Finally, it allows India to retain its nuclear arsenal and also import civilian nuclear fuel and technology.
Yet, the political debate has become centred around what many experts would consider a sidebar: can India carry out nuclear tests in future? The BJP is using the testing issue as its rallying cry against the nuclear deal. The Left is more circumspect since it opposed all of India’s nuclear tests.
An obvious reason for this is that the deal is mind-numbingly complicated. In politics, it is necessary to find a simple debating point when trying to set the public agenda on an issue. Thus the Congress has made nuclear power the core argument in favour of the deal. The BJP has picked on India’s sovereign right to test to oppose it. This is as simple as it can get. It also helps offset another problem: the BJP’s urban middle-class Hindu constituency is probably the group most supportive of a close relationship with the US.
The BJP ran afoul of sovereignty itself. US and Indian officials privately say the Vajpayee government gave a written assurance to the US that India would sign the CTBT. It had to break its own word when it found the BJP’s own ranks rebelled: testing had become a “sovereignty” issue.
It is another matter that any 21st century nuclear power uses computer modelling to check its weapons. If anything, India should be fighting for access to such models rather than the right to make mushroom clouds.