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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 36, April 1999

India's Nuclear Weapons:The State of Play
By Giri Deshingkar

The coalition government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was defeated on the floor of the Indian Parliament on 17 April 1999 suddenly by a single vote. As this comment is being written (22 April), consultations are under way to form an alternative government but it is proving extremely difficult, given the fractured state of the Indian polity. Even if some alternative government is cobbled together, it may involve some 20 parties getting together and it, too, may not last very long. It is still an open question as to who will lead such a coalition; the party which leads it then will have an important, if not decisive, say in the making of India's nuclear, defence and foreign policies. In any event, the voice of the second largest party, the Congress, will count in such matters.

Whatever the shape of the alternative government, it will immediately have to make up its mind about how to 'celebrate' the first anniversary of India's nuclear tests of 11 and 13 May 1998. When the tests were conducted, they were sharply criticised by those parties which may form the next government; they took the safe way out by only congratulating the scientists and technologists and criticizing the timing of the tests as well as the diplomacy associated with them. Having supported the nuclear weapons programme all along, they could not have opposed the tests per se. But, now, having seen what consequences the tests have produced, the new government must do some serious re-thinking about India's nuclear and missiles programmes. What the government says on 11 May 1999 will give us some indication about that re-thinking.

The other immediate problem before the new government will be to decide what to do about signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). If the BJP-led government had continued in power, there is little doubt that it would have signed the treaty sometime this summer. The previous Prime Minister, Mr. A.B. Vajpayee had almost said so in the United Nations General Assembly and reiterated that intention on the floor of the Indian Parliament on 15 December 1998. The government was seeking an all-party consensus on the issue and was also preparing public opinion.

The BJP's change of heart about signing the treaty - previously criticised by all India's main political parties as being discriminatory and consolidating the power of the existing nuclear-weapon powers - came about for very good, almost compelling, reasons. Although the Indian economy had shown resilience despite the sanctions imposed, foreign investment and exports had suffered. Economic liberalization, particularly modernization of industrial production, was stymied because of the cessation of all technology transfers involving dual-use technology - a wide range of items. Indian scientists and technologists could no longer get visas to attend conferences in the US. India's hopes that, having presented the world with a fait accompli, it would get the legal status of a nuclear-weapons power, were shattered: indeed, that goal soon seemed to have slipped beyond reach for as far into the future as the government could see. Attempts to get some nuclear-weapon powers to break ranks over UN Resolution No. 1172 and accept India's de facto status as a 'country possessing nuclear weapons' also failed. The non-aligned countries, as well as India's neighbours, did not support India's quest. And the justification India gave for the tests, that they were to deter China, also sent India-China relations, which were fast improving, into a deep freeze. All in all, even domestically the tests boomeranged badly and the testing of the Agni missiles made matters worse.

The tests had one positive fall-out. They led to a US-India dialogue in which the Indian side sought to take advantage of the rising anti-China opinion in the US to get the US to accept India's need to develop a nuclear deterrent against China. This produced some statements from US leaders about 'understanding' India's 'security needs', but US fears of further proliferation, and especially a possible nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan (which had 'replied' to India's nuclear and missile tests), proved to be stronger. India then showed willingness to sign the CTBT if the US would create a 'positive atmosphere' i.e., a promise to lift the sanctions. The US seemed willing to start the process. It first abstained from voting against IMF and World Bank loans to India; then the Brownback-Harkin amendment in Congress held the promise of lifting the sanctions, if only for a limited period. The BJP-led Indian government could, thus, proceed to obtain a consensus in the country about signing the CTBT. It had already armed itself by getting the nuclear scientists to say publically that no further nuclear tests were needed to maintain a viable deterrent posture.

The Congress and other parties, had they continued to be in the opposition, would have found it difficult to be a part of the consensus. After all, they had stridently rejected the CTBT as being 'flawed' and 'discriminatory' only a couple of years ago. Even so, bearing in mind that the BJP-led coalition was unstable and that they would be in the next coalition inheriting the problems the tests had created, they would have reluctantly joined the consensus. In fact, they would have preferred to be let off the hook by the BJP signing the CTBT.

The BJP has let the next government off another hook by carrying out the tests: namely, entering into a serious dialogue with Pakistan, something that the BJP alone as the most anti-Pakistan party in India could have done, just as the late President Nixon alone could have reversed America's anti-China policy. In the India-Pakistan case, the status of Kashmir has been the main stumbling block in the way of even normal relations between the two. Armies on both sides have fought artillery duels almost continuously which have often come to a war across the line of control.

All along, Pakistan has sought to internationalize the Kashmir issue with a view to inviting external, especially US, mediation. But India has determinedly rejected mediation and has insisted on bilateral talks which have led nowhere. However, now that both India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons, Pakistan has been playing on the fears of the international community that a conventional conflict between the two, may lead to a nuclear exchange, a fear reinforced by the fact that Pakistan believes nuclear weapons 'equalize' its conventional inferiority vis-à-vis India and so refuses to declare a 'no first use' doctrine; in fact, it contemplates a pre-emptive nuclear attack in case the much superior Indian Air Force threatens to destroy the Pakistan nuclear arsenal on the ground. Following the May 1998 tests, India began to realize this danger and to fear that if tension started building up again, mediation would be imposed by external powers, especially the US.

To pre-empt this scenario, it was better for India and Pakistan to settle the issues between themselves. Hence the BJP Prime Minister Vajpayee's trip to Pakistan and the Lahore Declaration (February 1999) to settle disputes through talks, including the dispute over the status of Kashmir. Despite the fall of the BJP-led coalition, Pakistan Prime Minister Mr. Nawaz Sharif has expressed confidence that the India-Pakistan dialogue will continue. The reason why the BJP took the initiative vis-à-vis Pakistan would also apply to the new government in India.

There is, however, a big 'if'. All of the analysis above with regard to India signing the CTBT and continuing with the India-Pakistan dialogue would go up in smoke if no viable new government can be formed and the President of India dissolves the Lok Sabha (Lower Hose of the Parliament) and declares general elections. In that event, there would only be a caretaker government looking after routine government business: by convention, if not by law, such a caretaker government cannot take decisions on important issues, particularly those of a controversial nature. And since elections are unlikely to be held before late October - new electoral roles have to be prepared by the Election Commission and it becomes virtually impossible to hold elections during the monsoons - no decision can be made about the CTBT before the Review Conference of September 1999. There is nothing the external powers can do about such a contingency.

India's 'bomb lobby' would love to see this happen. That lobby is tiny but very influential. It includes not only vocal members of the strategic think-tanks in Delhi but also the scientists of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and the technologists of the Defence Research and Development Organization. It is this lobby which prevailed upon the Congress government to reverse its decision to sign the CTBT in 1995. This lobby believes that India needs to develop a fully-fledged nuclear arsenal with new designs of nuclear warheads for which a series of further tests would be absolutely necessary. Some members of this lobby also want India to develop international ballistic missiles with thermonuclear warheads to deter what they consider the ultimate hegemon, the United States. They have been much encouraged by the Agni-II missile test carried out on 11 April this year, just 11 months after the nuclear tests. They have been relatively quiet during the last several months but in the absence of a proper government they will have a field day, particularly around the time of the CTBT Review Conference.

The political scene in India since 1995 has been so fluid - four coalition governments within four years - that it is difficult even to speculate what might happen after the general elections. Foreign and defence policies have never become an issue in the Indian elections during the last 50 years but the tests of 1998 have broken the tacit consensus. The next round of elections will see the BJP advertising its 'achievements' in carrying out the nuclear and missile tests and the other parties diminishing them as 'adventurist'. In the absence of India's signature on the CTBT, sanctions will continue. How the Indian voter reacts to all this is entirely unpredictable. But one thing is certain: India will not sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear-weapons power, nor abide by UN Resolution No. 1172 in full. No future government can put the nuclear genie back into the bottle.

Giri Deshingkar is a scholar based at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, India.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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