India's Nuclear Daze: The Domestic Politics of Nuclearisation

01 August 1998


Almost a billion Indians now face the fearsome prospect of living under the shadow of a Pakistani, as well as Indian, nuclear bomb. As the reality of the May 11, 1998 nuclear tests sinks in, the early, flimsy pro-nuclear consensus is disintegrating. The cheering was always uninformed: most Indians, including the educated, simply don't know what nuclear weapons are, don't know what happened in Hiroshima, and don't know what mass destruction means. The government's decision to cross the nuclear threshold reflected no security rationale, but the obsession of a political current which has championed the bomb since 1951 (that is to say, years before China, and decades before Pakistan, developed a nuclear weapons capability of their own) and well before the eruption of the Sino-Indian border conflict of 1962. In short, the nuclear weapons aspirations of this Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (which leads the current coalition government) and its prior incarnations, were never seriously motivated by changes in India's 'strategic' or external 'security environment'. Rather, they have held to this commitment as an article of faith, a macho symbol of militarism, and the ultimate expression of Hindu manliness. Now a new shakti of nuclear annihilation has been added to our pantheon û one which is prepared to turn radioactive sand into an object of worship in temples.

As India's isolation and the weakening of her security caused by the nuclear tests become apparent, a growing public opinion against nuclear weapons is emerging. At the political level, there is also a growing polarization. The Left strongly opposes both the nuclear tests and the plans to manufacture nuclear weapons. Parties of the center (including the Janata Dal which led the last government) and the Congress party are distinguishing themselves from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and expressing reservations about their action even if they have not yet expressed as clear-cut opposition as the Left. The BJP is no longer on the offensive and finds little committed support from its political alliance partners, other than the socialist-turned-right-wing minister of defense, George Fernandes who belongs to the Samata Party.

And yet, it took most Indian political parties- the two Communist parties and Left groups were the first to condemn the tests- more than a few days to distance themselves from the BJP. What explains this? Why did most parties congratulate India's nuclear scientists on their achievement? Furthermore, how did the six-week-old BJP-led government, which lacked a clear majority in the lower house of Parliament and won a vote of confidence by default because an opposition party decided at the last minute to abstain, come to make such a momentous and fateful decision? Contrary to what many Western disarmament activists believe, the reasons are located more in the particularities of India's domestic politics than in external factors such as security threats or even the five nuclear weapons-states' deplorable refusal to fulfil their disarmament obligations.

India and the World

If anything, India's security environment has improved, not deteriorated, in recent years. Political and commercial Sino-Indian relations have not been better for decades than they were just before the May 11 bomb test. There were two major agreements on peace and tranquillity in five years, and trade rose by 30 percent last year. China has supplied heavy water to India in the past and sells low-enriched uranium for the Tarapur power station. Relations with Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka also improved under the Gujral doctrine of preferential non-reciprocal treatment for smaller neighbors. With the subduing of secessionism in Kashmir, even the biggest irritant in relations with Pakistan, related to its support for that movement, was declining in importance.

The strategic significance of Sino-Pakistani arms and technology deals of recent years has been exaggerated. As anyone familiar with recent Sino-Indian talks will testify, China offered to sell India the very same nuclear and missile components that Pakistan bought! The China-Pakistan deals have falsely been made out to be a near nuclear alliance. It is actually little more than a relationship of cooperation in dual use materials and technologies and arms carried out for mutual economic, technological, commercial and political benefit. One can imagine the uproar in India if China were to supply Pakistan with its most advanced fighter aircraft or help it set up two nuclear reactors. Yet this is exactly what Russia is doing with India. The Pakistani hawk who screams that this proves an alliance between Russia and India that is strategically directed against Pakistan, is as fundamentally mistaken as the Indian hawk who makes the equivalent claim about the China-Pakistan relationship.

As for the Nuke Five's perpetuation of an unequal global nuclear order, this is certainly true, but it's an old story. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which India justifiably terms discriminatory, was indefinitely extended three years ago. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which India opposes for less justifiable reasons, was signed two years ago. India was not under great pressure to sign it, or roll back its nuclear capability. It just won't do to pretend that India's bombs are anti-imperialist, or that New Delhi's tests somehow challenge the global nuclear order. In fact, going by Prime Minister Vajpayee's letter to Clinton offering close cooperation with the US to promote the cause of nuclear disarmament (which Washington claims to support passionately), it is not anti-imperialist nuclear policy but its opposite that holds. And by claiming that India's nukes are only meant to deter enemy attacks, the BJP parrots what nuclear weapons-states (NWS) always say to rationalize their own terror weapons. Indeed, Pakistan is saying exactly that after conducting its six tests. Even if India faced a tangible nuclear threat, New Delhi has itself long held, rightly, that nuclear weapons are no means of meeting it. They are not weapons of defense. Nor are they good, reliable, deterrents. India has always called nuclear deterrence abhorrent. It is bound up with an arms race and by its very nature, deterrence has a degenerative, unstable character. To deter an adversary, a variety of factors press you to keep on raising the level and quality of damage you can inflict on him. He, in turn, will logically raise his level of counter-threat and preparedness. That is precisely what happened during the Cold War when the superpowers amassed arsenals big enough to destroy the world 50 times over.

That is one lesson which India wisely acknowledged until recently, but which the BJP-led coalition decided to reject. We are being asked to forget that nuclear weapons provide no defense against humiliation in unjust wars (e.g., in Vietnam), and that the absence of such weapons does not prevent tiny states from living in dignity. We are also being treated to other false arguments for nuclearization that speak of national pride, self-esteem, and a place at the international high table. But it is insulting to be told that our self-esteem is dependent solely on weapons of mass destruction. How can gatecrashing into the exclusive Nuclear Club, which the bulk of the world's 186 nations distrust, be the best way of promoting India s national interest?

New Delhi wants to join the existing discriminatory nuclear global order as a discriminator, as the Club's sixth, junior, member. Its goal is for Washington to endorse its nuclearization, and to recognize its value as a potential ally in any policy for containing China. Global or even regional nuclear disarmament, whose prospect looks dim to India's policy-makers, is at best a very low priority for New Delhi.

Entering The Nuclear Club

The principal reasons behind New Delhi's decision to go nuclear lie in the evolution of domestic politics since the mid-1980s. That is best understood as a combination of ascendant Hindu-communal ideology, growing alienation of the elite from the people, a militaristic obsession with becoming a Great Power among policy-makers, and growth of a profoundly cynical political discourse. These are closely related to one another.

First, the BJP's lasting gain since the Ayodhya agitation has been less in its electoral support which doubled between 1991 and 1996 (but stagnated since), than in its success in influencing substantial sections of India's social and economic elite and, ideologically penetrating the higher bureaucracy, judiciary and the professions. This ideology is based on a deeply toxic, belligerent, paranoid and sectarian nationalism, which sees Hindus as the classical victims of invasion and conquest, who must now settle scores with the invaders (principally Muslims) by subjugating them, and by uniting and militarizing themselves and creating an awe-inspiring Hindu state. Here, the 1992 mass mobilisation to destroy the mosque at Ayodhya, built by a former Muslim emperor Babar in the early sixteenth century, played a decisive political-ideological role. This mobilization- which had numerous fascist trappings and ultimately led to the destruction of the mosque on December 6, 1992 in open defiance of the Supreme Court and the Indian Constitution- aroused among a section of Hindus fanatical passions and hatreds against Muslims for a presumed historical grievance which was itself a concoction. It was falsely claimed that the mosque was built by destroying a temple built to commemorate the birthplace of a mythical Hindu God-King Rama. The absence of historical integrity did not prevent the undeniable political success of this campaign for the forces of Hindu communalism.

This political-ideological framework of Hindu communal nationalism regards peace, non-violence and justice as effete. The secular figure of Gandhi is portrayed as a villain out to emasculate Hindu manhood, someone to be eliminated, as he indeed was by a fanatic follower of the cadre-based Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS, or National Volunteer Corps, is the BJP's progenitor, organizational master and the ultimate arbiter of its fate. This ideology has emerged as the dominant trend in sections of the once-liberal secular media.

This goes hand in hand with a second factor, the growing alienation of India's elite from the masses. India, always hierarchical, has now crystallized into a one-eighth versus seven-eighths society. With the collapse of the Nehruvian paradigm, of democracy, secularism, non-alignment and socialism (a modicum of distributive justice), the top 10 to 15 percent have set their fate against the rest of society, especially the poor half. They look westward and are culturally, economically and in political attitudes closer to Northern elites and their own non-resident kin in North America and Europe. Strongly influenced by social-Darwinist ideas, they see the poor as a drag on 'their' India. They know that India, the world's biggest cesspool of poverty and backwardness, will miss the bus to the 'Asian Twenty-first Century'. They want a shortcut to high global stature. What better route than the military one? All others would require a transformation of Indian society and its soft (on-the-rich) state.

The typically edgy, insecure, peevish Indian diplomat, businessman or lawyer is now increasingly inclined to demand equality with the North's elite on crude terms, defined by raw power. Here, nuclear weapons get mystified as the ultimate currency, a passport to a permanent seat on the Security Council, a symbol of potency. India can become a fully-paid member of the club of advanced nations by going nuclear. That is the status which India naturally must acquire because of her glorious past, no matter how that past may be distorted, vandalized and destroyed by communalists. Communalism in India is generally understood as referring to the generation, exacerbation and eruption of tensions and conflicts between different religious communities (usually as a result of political manipulations). Tensions between Hindus and Muslims are the most dangerous since Muslims, numbering about 130 million, are the largest religious minority in India. This is a very different conception from the Western notion of communalism as some kind of positive expression of the virtues of communal living, behavior, and attitudes. In the communal Hindu version of India's 'tryst with destiny', greatness is defined purely in machtpolitik terms, power untempered by civilized conduct and compassion.

Finally, the growing importance of militaristic nationalism is reflected in India's public discourse. At the grassroots, there is the moral, liberating discourse of rights, justice, self-assertion by the hitherto disenfranchised and underprivileged. At the elite level, as if in opposition to this, is the discourse of power and privilege. Equality, freedom, social cohesion and universal citizenship are wholly alien to this discourse. Thus, when the typical member of the elite is confronted by a major development, what he/she asks is not whether it is good or bad, but rather, what's in it for us, what will happen if I don't conform to the new reality? Within this framework, there is a clear separation between science and ethics, between technology and social responsibility. Developing instruments of mass destruction is regarded as an achievement, through which Indians can show the world that they are as good as anyone else.

Nuclear Myths

Today, India has no discernible nuclear doctrine. Otherwise, it would not have had such wild shifts in official pronouncements. First, Mr. Vajpayee said India's nuclear weapons are for defensive purposes which can rationalize even pre-emptive first use. Then, he offered no-first-use, but quickly hedged it with conditions. These would be extended to Pakistan but not to China which was explicitly stated to be a strategic rival, but then efforts were made to assuage it and state that the Indian decision to go nuclear was not aimed at China or anyone else. Then India said it was open to considering signing the CTBT and NPT as a nuclear weapons-state. When it was pointed out that the NPT explicitly mentions that only those countries which have become NWSs before January 1, 1967 are entitled to such status, India then stated it was not interested in de jure status but would settle for de facto recognition of their new status by NWSs that adjusted their behavior to India accordingly.

On the CTBT its shifts have been numerous- sometimes stating it would consider signing if there were amendments. When it was pointed out that such piecemeal amendments are a virtual impossibility since the treaty cannot be renegotiated, the government suggested that it might sign the CTBT- provided the US gave it other behind-the-scenes incentives such as access to dual-use technologies. This, again, has alternated with repeated statements that India would not sign the CTBT because it was discriminatory and its earlier opposition to it still holds. All in all, there has been enormous confusion, revealing that the decision to go nuclear was not undertaken as part of any seriously thought out long-term policy or doctrine. Even though the Indian government had anticipated sanctions it was still surprised by their extent. It has taken some solace from the fact that not all NWSs have endorsed sanctions- Russia and France with an eye on the Indian market have said they are not in favor of economic sanctions though they will in all likelihood abide by G8 strictures against dual-use technology transfer not already in the pipeline.

But it has been surprised by the unanimous call for it to sign the CTBT indicating that this is the minimum price for it to pay if it wants sanctions lifted and its international political isolation ended. Even worse from New Delhi's perspective, and quite unexpected, has been the internationalization of the Kashmir issue. Once the Kashmir conflict was nuclearized as it now has been, it cannot but be internationalized. The possibility of a nuclear outbreak in Kashmir cannot be deemed a purely bilateral or South Asian issue. But the fact that neither the Indian government nor its pro-nuclear acolytes outside the government anticipated this internationalization of the Kashmir question betrays just how little thought went into an assessment of the wider and deeper ramifications of their act to go openly nuclear.

The counterpart to this doctrinal fluidity and confusion has been the promotion of diverse myths. Four myths are important. First, that the tests were a major scientific achievement. Even if achievement is (wrongly) separated from the ethics of developing mass-destruction weapons, the tests themselves were no breakthrough. The science of fission and fusion weapons goes back to 1945 and 1952 respectively. Sophisticated theoretical nuclear work has been in the public domain for decades. Graduate students have written theses in US universities on nuclear-weapons science. The Pokharan-II test only involved technology replication. Even so, scientists here and weapons-designers abroad have raised doubts (New York Times, May 18, 1998) about India's claimed thermonuclear (hydrogen) bomb. Its yield (45 kilotons) compares poorly with the usual 1,000 kt-plus yields of such weapons. America's first H-bomb (1952) yielded 10,400 kt and China's (1967) 3,300 kt. There has been no explanation of the low yield, nor refutation of the story long known in some circles that Pokharan-I's yield was not 10-20 kt as claimed, but only 2-4 kt.

A second myth is that the world will as easily learn to live with a nuclear India as it did with nuclear China. China's nuclearization happened in the proliferation era, years before any nuclear restraint treaties. Its acceptance was a consequence of China's switching sides at a critical moment during the Cold War. India's defiant entry into the Nuke Five Club comes after the evolution of a strong global political-legal anti-testing movement, and its decision is unrelated to real or convincing security threats. A third myth is our strong economy. Even if the impact of direct sanctions is limited, multilateral loan delays/cancellations could be damaging. Worse would be the downgrading of credit ratings and loss of investor confidence. The Indian economy is highly vulnerable: the withdrawal of a couple of billion dollars can have a huge impact at the margin, as it did in 1991. At that time, such capital movements away from the Rupee triggered a short-term balance of payments crisis, in response to which the World Bank/IMF in collaboration with high-level supporters of neo-liberal doctrine in the Indian bureaucracy and government pushed through a 'long-term solution', namely the standard Stabilization and Structural Adjustment Program (SSAP). The SSAP was based on the three big Ds- devaluation, deflation and denationalization of public sector assets.

It should be noted that the moral authority of America's sanctions is dubious in the absence of its own commitment to disarmament, but so is the BJP's nuclear adventurism. Nuclear weapons are extremely expensive to build and service. China claimed it would have a modest program, but has spent over $100 billion. Deployed weapons need advanced command, control, communications, which account for half the costs of the program. It is futile to hope there will be no arms race. That is not solely in India's hands. Going by China's reaction, it will treat India as a nuclear adversary and press home its advantage- a 30-year nuclear lead and an economy three times bigger. Even by conservative estimates, maintaining a tiny deterrent could raise India's defense budget by 25 to 40 percent at a time when it must be reduced. Already, New Delhi spends twice as much on the military as it does on health, education and social welfare. With or without sanctions, the bomb will mean more suffering for our poor.

The fourth myth is that there is a strong consensus on nuclearization. There is no informed consensus. Most Indians simply do not know about the effects of nuclear weapons or that there is no medical or civil defense against them. The early, flimsy consensus has come apart. The left, the centre, and substantial numbers of Congress party members, now oppose weaponization. Nuclearization is polarizing India. More than 125 scientists, many from institutes under the atomic energy department, have taken a principled stand expressing deep dismay and unhappiness at the bomb tests. Recalling the horror that is nuclear war, they ask: 'Can we feel happy and secure in a world in which every country feels proud of its nuclear weapons capability and is convinced of... deterrence?' Nuclearization has led to an explosion of jingoist triumphalism, rabid communalism, and war-mongering over Kashmir in both India and Pakistan. In the subcontinent, which bristles with countless tensions and disputes, it would be suicidal to rely on nuclear deterrence. If non-weaponized deterrence could collapse easily, so could weaponized deterrence.

Challenging Nuclearization

The growing opposition shows a majority among the Indian intelligentsia or all non-BJP parties have not embraced the ideology of nuclearization. The danger, rather, is that its articulation in public discourse is so powerful that only very few critics directly question it. Nationalism remains a strong force. Indeed, the BJP's particular brand of it has gained ground to the extent that it has begun to claim mainstream status. Only a comprehensive, radical critique can challenge it. The political Centre, represented by unstable middle-caste parties and the now-exhausted Congress, cannot. The Left alone has the rudiments of the necessary critique. They have (after initial hesitation) come out firmly against the tests, rejected the warmongering against Pakistan and China and the citation of these 'threats' as justifications for the Indian decision. They have called for a permanent end to tests without, however, endorsing the CTBT which they unfortunately continue to oppose. They are also the only political parties of any significance in India to have demanded a halt to all preparations for weaponizing or otherwise preparing to develop the general infrastructure for a weapons system which would include a command, control, communications and intelligence set-up. In effect they have called for a return to the pre-May 11, 1998 situation which had been for decades the middle ground or majority position of nuclear ambiguity.

The situation among the larger public is more encouraging. The middle ground opinion on nuclear weapons lies squarely to the BJP's left. This comprises more than 60 percent of opinion-shapers who until recently favoured the retention, but not exercise, of India's nuclear weapons option. The Indian CTBT debate two years ago, dominated heavily by hawks who provided the government devious ideological arguments, artificially compressed that political space. The tests have destroyed its foundation: now you are either for the bomb or against it. However, the sentiments underlying the middle ground are beginning to assert themselves.

There is growing opposition to the BJP's nuclear policy. If the opposition is expressed more through newspaper columns and in personal conversations, and not yet through orchestrated public action, that is because there is no organized anti-nuclear peace movement in the subcontinent providing a focus and platform for the growing disarmament constituency. Efforts are afoot in both India and Pakistan to build such a movement involving concerned citizens, scientists, Gandhian groups, Left-wing groups, feminists and environmentalists. There have been peace demonstrations and meetings in Delhi, Bombay, Madras, Bangalore, Calcutta, Hyderabad, Poona, Jaipur and elsewhere. In Pakistan, there have been spirited demonstrations both before and after the tests. In early June, a number of citizens courageously defied religious zealots to register their protest while calling for conciliation and peace.

A special role will be played here by recent joint Indian-Pakistani citizen-to-citizen initiatives to promote peace, friendship and democracy. Over three years, there have been three large joint conventions and several smaller initiatives such as school-to-school exchanges. Such groups have a moral and political influence far in excess of their numerical strength. They have drawn support from the Left, as well as NGOs and grassroots movements working on such diverse issues as women's rights, environmental protection, human rights, and labour struggles.

If they join hands with the peace movement and initiatives such as the recently formed MIND (Movement in India for Nuclear Disarmament), they could reshape the debate on nuclear policy, by educating the public on the total indefensibility, inhumanity and irrationality of these monstrous weapons. Together, we must advocate a return to sanity through a permanent cessation of testing and manufacturing of weapons that are immoral, illegal and strategically irrational.