How India triumphed in the nuclear debate - Hindustan Times

How India triumphed in the nuclear debate

May 09, 2023 06:11 PM IST

25 years after Pokhran II, there is no doubt that India was right in going nuclear. Delhi won the geopolitical, strategic, ethical and economic arguments

On Thursday, India will mark the 25th anniversary of the nuclear tests in Pokhran. In itself, the successful acquisition of a terribly destructive capability is no cause for celebration. India has always been conscious of the perils of nuclear weapons and advocated disarmament. But it was left with no choice but to build on its “peaceful nuclear explosion” of 1974 and display its nuclear capabilities on May 11, and then May 13, 1998.

The late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who made the political call to overcome the 24-year-long diffidence, set out a clear objective and managed the consequences, stands vindicated. (HT Archive) PREMIUM
The late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who made the political call to overcome the 24-year-long diffidence, set out a clear objective and managed the consequences, stands vindicated. (HT Archive)

There were four sources of opposition to the tests. The first was ethical; how could the land of Gandhi want nuclear weapons? The second was strategic; testing, it was said, would launch a new race with Pakistan and help it bridge its conventional military weakness vis-a-vis India. The third was geopolitical; nuclear tests were expected to lead to India’s isolation. And the fourth was economic; India would not be able to withstand the inevitable sanctions.

Twenty-five years later, the late Prime Minister (PM) Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who made the political call to overcome the 24-year-long diffidence, set out a clear objective and managed the consequences, stands vindicated.

Take the ethical debate. India has to live in a world that it did not make and has limited influence in shaping. Dominant powers had conveniently constructed a small club of nuclear-haves and a discriminatory regime with a big no-entry signpost to the club. Delhi operated in a challenging neighbourhood where it faced threats from both overt nuclear powers (China) and those with covert capabilities (Pakistan).

Testing was essential not to fight, but to ensure a “credible minimum deterrence” and avoid a conflagration. India’s nuclear doctrine, unilaterally, pledged that Delhi would not be the first to use nuclear weapons. India’s tests came from an ethical critique of double standards embedded in the international order. And there is now 25 years of evidence to show that India’s nuclear programme hasn’t made the world less safe and may well have contributed to global security.

India’s strategic case for the tests was articulated by Vajpayee in a letter to United States (US) President Bill Clinton in 1998, which Clinton, in his fury, leaked to The New York Times. The PM noted, “We have an overt nuclear weapon state on our borders, a state which committed armed aggression against India in 1962. Although our relations with that country have improved in the last decade or so, an atmosphere of distrust persists mainly due to the unresolved border problem. To add to the distrust that country has materially helped another neighbour of ours to become a covert nuclear weapons state. At the hands of this bitter neighbour we have suffered three aggressions in the last 50 years.”

Two-and-a-half decades later, Vajpayee’s strategic argument has proven correct in both respects. One, there is now no doubt that Beijing is Delhi’s most formidable adversary. While India is still handicapped by a wide power asymmetry with China, possessing a nuclear capability has helped. China’s military planners will have to take it into account if they engage in a certain kind of escalation at the border and beyond. Think of a counter-factual; if India didn’t have nukes, would China have been more or less restrained in recent years?

Two, while India’s tests gave Pakistan the excuse to go official with its nuclear capability — which was not bad since the world’s worst-kept secret was now out — it has not given Rawalpindi insurance against Indian retribution. India may not have crossed the Line of Control during Kargil, but it scored a clear victory despite Pakistan having gone nuclear. And since 2016, PM Narendra Modi has called out Pakistan’s nuclear bluff which was based on the premise that Delhi would not respond to any terror attack because of a fear of nuclear escalation. Irrespective of the efficacy of cross-border strikes, both the surgical and air strikes in the aftermath of Uri and Pulwama showed that India will not let Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons shrink its options. Add to it the revelations about AQ Khan’s illegal network, fears of a jihadist takeover of Pakistan’s arsenal, and Rawalpindi’s reckless rhetoric and unthinking expansion of its nuclear programme and India shines in contrast reputationally.

Then take the geopolitical metric. While the US imposed sanctions, the tests, paradoxically, inaugurated the most intense dialogue on strategic issues between the two sides, led by Strobe Talbott and Jaswant Singh. India ably used the channel to communicate its security concerns. A year after the tests, Clinton, in a first for any US President, backed India’s position in a conflict with Pakistan during Kargil.

Under George W Bush, the two countries agreed on a framework for the next steps in the strategic partnership, a major defence partnership, and eventually the civil nuclear deal. Within a decade of testing, the world recognised India as a de-facto nuclear weapons State. Washington, to its credit, made peace with India’s status and then invested tremendous diplomatic capital to integrate Delhi into the global nuclear architecture, in the process deepening the bilateral strategic partnership too. If there is any missing link in the nuclear story, it is India’s absence from the Nuclear Suppliers Group and that’s due to China’s opposition.

On the economic metric, India swiftly overcame the sanctions and continued on a high-growth path. Neither did it have to face additional technology encumbrances nor did western capital flee from Indian markets. Instead, India expanded its energy options and is better placed to cooperate in high-tech civilian and military domains.

It is an ugly world out there and nuclear weapons are a symbol of this ugliness. The nuclear architecture itself today is under great stress and evolving, both doctrinally and technologically. But 25 years ago, in dealing with the world as it was, India’s leadership placed a smart bet and won.

The views expressed are personal

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    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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