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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 38, June 1999

Slouching toward Pokhran II: Three Explanations of India's Quest for the Bomb
By Sumit Ganguly

A range of explanations have been proffered about India's decision to test nuclear weapons on 11 and 13 May, 1998, at Pokhran in the Thar desert in Rajasthan. The three most prominent explanations blame India's quest for prestige and status in the international order, the rise of the jingoistic Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its more muscular view of Indian defense policy, or the inevitable culmination of a bureaucratic-scientific-technological momentum. While each of these explanations has some merit, none of them, in and of themselves, can adequately explain India's pathway to Pokhran II, twenty four years after the "peaceful" nuclear explosion at the site on 18 May 1974.

The first explanation, citing India's quest for status and prestige in the international system, no doubt contributed to the overall drive to acquire nuclear weapons. As many Indian analysts are prone to argue, all the members of the United Nations Security Council are also nuclear-weapons States. Coincidence? The Indians believe not. They argue that a country's possession of nuclear weapons does confer a degree of recognition and status. The merits of this argument aside, it cannot explain such a discrete set of events as the tests of 1998. The unrequited Indian quest for prestige and status has been a constant in Indian foreign policy since the 1950s. If this quest was the determinant of the nuclear tests, India should have been carrying out a series of tests since the mid-1980s, when sufficient amounts of fissile material became available to the Indian nuclear establishment. Yet no such tests took place. Consequently, one can conclude that a constant - the search for international recognition - cannot explain a discrete event.

Some analysts, Indian and foreign, have argued that the tests were designed to bolster the sagging fortunes of the BJP. The BJP, this argument holds, conducted these tests to shore up its weak and fractious coalition. This proposition is almost entirely bereft of merit. In the days and weeks after the tests, the BJP did gain some fleeting popularity. However, the tests did little or nothing to seal the cracks in the contentious coalition in parliament. Furthermore, any analyst familiar with the characteristics of the Indian political landscape should recognize that foreign and defense policy issues rarely animate the Indian electorate.

Finally, some scholars have suggested that the tests represented the culmination of a bureaucratic, scientific, and technological momentum. There is some modicum of truth to this argument, but it is also inadequate as the sole explanation, for it ignores the primacy of the political authority in India. Scientists in various governmental institutions, including the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), can indeed seek to influence key decisions. However, the final decision-making authority remains vested in the political leadership. India had demonstrated the capacity to test nuclear weapons after May 1974. It possessed sufficient fissile material to carry out tests after the mid-1980s. Yet it did not actively contemplate carrying out nuclear tests until December 1995, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. Consequently, although the scientific establishment may well have acquired some latitude in their research endeavors from the political leadership, the final decision still remained located in the corridors of political authority.

An Alternative Explanation

The factors that compose an alternative explanation can be divided between predisposing and precipitating forces.

Predisposing Forces

Three predisposing forces were salient. First was the acquisition and evolution of the requisite scientific and technological capabilities to develop nuclear weapons. In this context, it needs to be underscored that Homi Jehangir Bhaba, a Cambridge-trained nuclear physicist, played a key role in convincing India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, of the signal importance of developing a nuclear infrastructure to promote India's economic development. Nehru gave Bhaba free rein to organize India's nuclear establishment. The AEC under Bhaba's tutelage pursued two goals: it helped develop India's capabilities to harness nuclear power to address its energy needs and scientific development, and it laid the foundations of a nuclear weapons program in incremental steps. Bhaba's successors, to varying degrees, shared his commitments. Nevertheless, it is important to highlight that, contrary to the claims of some, the final decision to proceed toward weaponization remained in the hands of political authorities.

A second factor that helped create permissive conditions for weaponization was the decline of the Nehruvian legacy in India. Prime Minister Nehru had, from the outset of his career, sought to pursue a foreign policy based on non-alignment, the non-use of force in international relations, reliance on multilateral institutions to settle outstanding disputes, and low levels of military spending at home. Nehru's alternative vision of world order suffered a deadly setback in the wake of the Chinese attack and occupation of some 14,000 square miles of territory along India's Himalayan borders in 1962. Nehru, broken in both body and spirit, died in 1964. His successors, especially his daughter, Indira Gandhi, continued to piously invoke the principles that he had long espoused, but for all practical purposes she abandoned any real adherence to those beliefs and practices. Instead she became a shrewd and tough-minded practitioner of power politics, both at home and abroad. Consequently, with the abandonment of the self-imposed normative commitments, India was now in a position to act more like, as Indian political scientist Varun Sahni puts it, "like just another big country." As long as ridding the world of nuclear weapons was not a viable issue on the global agenda, India too would resort to self-help measures to ensure its own security. If these measures included the acquisition of nuclear weapons, Indian efforts would not be found wanting.

A third and final predisposing factor was the end of the Indo-Soviet relationship following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. India's quest for security and the abandonment of key elements of the Nehruvian legacy had also led to the forging of a security relationship with the Soviet Union. In August 1971, India signed a treaty of "peace, friendship and cooperation" with the Soviets. The treaty, in effect, guaranteed Soviet assistance in the event of a threat to India's national security. Armed with this treaty, India was able to prosecute a war with Pakistan in November-December 1971 without fear of China's opening a second front along the Himalayas.

Over the course of the next decade and beyond, the Indo-Soviet relationship flourished. The Soviets, in their efforts to court India as a bulwark against Chinese and American influence in South Asia, sold India latest-generation weaponry at less-than-market prices. They also proved willing to accept rupee and barter payment for their military sales. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which provoked a sharp American reaction and led to a renewal of US- Pakistani defense ties, briefly disturbed this relationship of mutual convenience. However, the Soviets were keen on maintaining their position in South Asia, and so they continued their largesse toward India in return for India's studied avoidance of public criticism of the Soviet actions in Afghanistan.

This carefully tended relationship collapsed after 1991 despite a renewal of the security treaty with the principal Soviet successor State, Russia. Most analysts in New Delhi realized that the key provisions in the treaty were all but meaningless given Russia's debilitated political, military, and economic conditions. As a consequence, India had to cope with potential future military threats from China and other powers entirely on its own. In the absence of security guarantees from another nuclear-weapons State, it made sense for India to acquire a nuclear arsenal of its own.

Precipitating Forces

The predisposing forces can explain the creation of the nuclear infrastructure for the development of a nuclear arsenal and can also show how various political constraints were steadily removed. What they cannot explain are the more immediate forces that led to weaponization. Consequently, it is necessary to spell out a set of factors that precipitated the nuclear decision of May 1998.

At one level, a number of Indian decision-makers had adhered to the faint hope that the nuclear-weapons States would move to dramatically delegitimize nuclear weapons at the end of the Cold War. It could well be argued that any such notions were, at best, chimerical. Despite the fanciful form of such thinking, the hopes were very real. Yet as the Cold War drew to a close and the intense US-Soviet competition vanished (along with the collapse of communism and the Soviet empire), neither the US and its allies nor Russia abandoned its nuclear weapons programs. Instead, while fitful efforts at arms control remained on the negotiating agenda, various efforts were made to ensure the continued reliability and viability of the American nuclear stockpile. The continued reliance on nuclear weapons as integral elements of the national security strategies of most of the great powers convinced Indian decision-makers that they too should move towards the acquisition of nuclear weapons capabilities.

A second factor, the easy passage and renewal of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995, reinforced India's decision to proceed toward overt weaponization. India had been an early and fervent opponent of the NPT because, India argued with considerable justification, the provisions of the NPT were inherently lopsided. The treaty sought to place legal restrictions on the horizontal spread of nuclear weapons but only exhorted the nuclear-weapons States to rid themselves of their nuclear arsenals and thereby placed no limits on vertical proliferation. Much to the surprise and dismay of India's decision-makers, the United States successfully fashioned a global coalition in favor of the indefinite and unconditional extension of the NPT. More to the point, they realized that as one of the three States that had refused to accede to the NPT, it would come under extraordinary pressure from the major powers to join the regime in the years ahead. Consequently, a new sense of urgency arose for the acquisition of a nuclear arsenal.

The attempt to create another multilateral regime under the aegis of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) also aroused Indian misgivings. India, along with Ireland, had proposed the original version of this treaty in 1954. At that time, the nuclear-weapons States had evinced scant interest in the treaty. At the end of the Cold War, India and the United States had co- sponsored a resolution seeking to resurrect the CTBT process. However, as the negotiations on the treaty proceeded at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Indian diplomats insisted that the CTBT be linked to some time-bound plan for nuclear disarmament. Simultaneously, they objected strenuously to the introduction of the "entry into force" (EIF) clause, which would require some 44 countries with ongoing nuclear programs to accede to the CTBT before it went into force. Finally, the Indians objected to the substantive loopholes in the treaty, which allowed hydronuclear tests and laboratory simulations. These provisions, in effect, allowed the nuclear-weapons States to maintain the viability of their stockpiles without overt testing. As a State that had yet to test an array of nuclear weapons to ensure that their designs would indeed work, India was unalterably opposed to the insertion of this clause.

In the wake of the CTBT's passage in September 1996, despite their ardent efforts to stall the draft treaty in Geneva, Indian decision-makers developed a siege mentality. They well realized that India had to carry out a series of nuclear tests before the EIF clause was used to prod a recalcitrant member of the global community to join the CTBT regime.

Apart from these global concerns, nearer to home Indian decision-makers had become increasingly concerned about growing Sino-Pakistani collusion in the realm of ballistic missile technology. Various attempts to induce the United States to sanction China under the terms of the Missile Technology Control Regime for its missile technology sales to Pakistan had failed.

This disturbing international and regional strategic backdrop made conditions especially conducive for India to conduct a set of nuclear weapons tests. Indeed, even as early as December 1995, Prime Minister Rao had seriously contemplated carrying out nuclear tests. However, as the preparations for such a test were discovered by the United States, he backed away from testing. With the emergence of the more hawkish BJP coalition government in New Delhi in 1998, conditions became ripe for carrying out the nuclear tests. The BJP had long advocated an overt nuclear weapons program. Even though in a coalition government, it could count on the support, or at least acquiescence, of its partners in matters pertaining to national security. Their calculations proved to be correct given the support that they received after the tests of 11 and 13 May, 1999.

Sumit Ganguly is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College, City University of New York, USA.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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