Getting the Bomb and Beyond

Indian Nuclear Policy strikes a fine balance between depth and the number of subjects that crop up in India’s nuclear history

Earlier this year, Lowy Institute, an Australia-based think tank, launched a power index which compared the capabilities of 25 countries and territories in the Asia-Pacific region. India was ranked fourth (score: 48.9) and its biggest threat, China was ranked second (score: 69.9). While Indian armed forces (total active military and paramilitary forces, readiness and organisation) were ranked first, the difference with China is widened on account of a lag in ‘weapons and platforms’. On this front, India (score: 28, rank: 5) is way behind China (score 58.3, rank: 2).

This gap in conventional forces has forced India to resort to balancing China using asymmetrical capabilities. What is often not understood is how this gap is also forcing a rethink over India’s ‘no first use’ (NFU) pledge of nuclear weapons. The issue of NFU revision has traditionally been discussed in context of Pakistan. But such a discussion is futile given India’s conventional superiority over its western neighbour. India should logically look to keep conflicts with Pakistan in the conventional realm. However, of late, some commentators have suggested that India needs to review its NFU policy keeping China’s growing conventional capabilities in mind.

The link between this rising conventional asymmetry and the urge to discard NFU is mentioned in passing by Harsh V. Pant and Yogesh Joshi in their new book Indian Nuclear Policy. This book is a whirlwind tour of the history of Indian nuclear thinking and the evolution of nuclear forces, doctrines and policies. While the book did not expand on the sources of India’s rethink over NFU policy, it does identify a few key themes in the nuclear journey of India.

First, the book clearly explains why India’s nuclear weapons programme has been sui generis. Unlike other nuclear powers, India pursued an atomic energy programme before moving towards a weapons programme. Moreover, India is the only nuclear power which has exhibited a high level of moral and political abhorrence towards the destructive potential of the atom bomb.

Second, while India championed the cause of nuclear disarmament, it never had the material capabilities to turn the discourse on arms control, non-proliferation or disarmament in its favour. Ironically, it became one of the earliest targets of the global non-proliferation regime. Its decision to go ahead with the 1974 test was partly a result of NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons) completely ignoring India’s demands. Similarly, the tests in 1998 followed the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995 and the hanging sword of Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Third, Pant and Joshi do get into the reasons for delay in weaponization after India had demonstrated its nuclear potential in 1974. However, there is one major problem in their account. The duo lay out the account of how New Delhi resorted to escapism rather than facing the reality of the need for nuclear tests, but they still conclude that Indian decision-makers were not “starry-eyed idealists”. By 1979, the Indian intelligence agencies had gathered enough information to conclude that Pakistan was close to acquiring the bomb. Still, Indian leaders were not prepared to give up on their delusional disarmament agenda. In fact, as late as 1985, then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi hosted a meeting of Group of Six (comprising of India, Mexico, Tanzania, Sweden, Greece and Argentina) to advocate the cause of disarmament. In October of the same year, the Group of Six wrote to the US and Soviet Union proposing installation of seismic devices near the test sites of the two superpowers, for the group to monitor the compliance with the ban on underground nuclear testing. Starry-eyed idealism is actually a kind explanation. This behaviour was egregiously reckless for the leader of a country that was surrounded by two hostile powers: one of which already had nuclear weapons and another was close to acquisition, if not already there. It was as if Gandhi was banking on the success of his disarmament diplomacy to escape taking a tough call on nuclear testing.

Four, the authors chart out India’s transformation from a reluctant nuclear power to a normal nuclear state. Today, India does not talk too much about nuclear disarmament, seeks accommodation with the global nuclear order which it once thought was discriminatory, opposes further proliferation of nuclear weapons and thus seeks to maintain the exclusivity and prestige of the nuclear club. Rajesh Basrur had once summed up India’s nuclear strategic culture as “nuclear minimalism”. One wonders if that description fits any longer with growing capability and sophistication of the Indian nuclear arsenal.

The book has a small factual inaccuracy. It clubs C. Rajagopalachari’s Swatantra Party along with Jan Sangha and Bharatiya Janata Party as part of the pro-bomb lobby. Rajagopalachari was himself an ardent champion of nuclear disarmament and had even impressed the US President John F. Kennedy with his arguments for doing away with the bomb. In fact, George Perkovich, arguably the foremost chronicler of India’s nuclear history, classifies Swatantra as “the clearest anti-bomb party.”

Being a part of Oxford India Short Introductions series, this book has inherent limitations of how deeply it could have gone into various issues. Overall, Pant and Joshi have found a fine balance between the number of subjects they had raised and the depth they have accorded to each. Besides, it is not just a work of synthesis but also brings to fore new archival evidence. We are definitely richer with this book than without.