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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 24, March 1998

New Government in India Heightens Nuclear Concerns

On 19 March, the leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Atal Behari Vajpayee, was sworn in as India's new Prime Minister. The BJP heads a coalition of 13 parties. Much international attention focused on the BJP's stance on Indian nuclear weapons. In recent years, the BJP has spoken of the need for an unequivocal commitment to developing a nuclear arsenal, crossing the 'threshold' of deliberate equivocation which has led to the designation of India, and Pakistan, as 'undeclared' nuclear-weapon States with a clear nuclear capacity but undeveloped and undeployed weapons. However, there was some relief at the formulation selected by the BJP in power, summed up by new Foreign Minister George Fernandes on 20 March:

"We have not said that we are going in for nuclear weapons. If necessary we may have to exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons." Fernandes added: "If India's defence needs nuclear weapons, we shall not fight shy of inducting them." Fernandes was speaking after the publication by the coalition of a National Agenda which stated: "preserving India's unity and integrity is our prime concern and for this we are prepared to exercise all our options, including induction of nuclear weapons."

According to a spokesperson from the US Embassy in New Delhi, Kiki Munshi, speaking on 20 March:

"This statement is similar to those of previous Indian Governments and does not represent a new threshold in this sensitive area."

Pakistan, however, reacted with some consternation. According to Government spokesperson Tariq Altaf (20 March): "We are very seriously disturbed at this assertion and its implications, which threaten peace and stability in South Asia... The open threat to exercise the nuclear option thus creates a fearsome situation. It multiplies manifold the threat to Pakistan's security besides dealing a grievous blow to global and regional efforts at nuclear non-proliferation. We urge the international community to take a serious note, as it deserves, of Indian intentions and to exert pressure on India to show restraint." Altaf added:

"In this situation, if need arises, we shall review our policy to safeguard our sovereignty, territorial integrity and national interests."

Pakistan also fears that the new Government will move to accelerate India's missile-development programme, particularly with respect to the medium-range Agni missile, believed to be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.

Editor's note: see Documents and Sources for extracts from an exchange of views at the CD between Pakistan's Foreign Minister, Gohar Ayub Khan, and India's Ambassador to the CD, Savitri Kunadi.

Reports: Hindu party pledges economic growth, Associated Press, 18 March;Pakistan offers nuke pact to India, Associated Press, 19 March; Pakistan says could review its nuclear policy, Reuters, 19 March; India Government vows transparent regime, Reuters, 20 March; India to continue with nuclear program, United Press International, 20 March; New Government muddies nuclear policy, Associated Press, 20 March; Pakistan defends nuclear program, United Press International, 23 March.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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