India’s nuclear behaviour is often deemed seemingly unpredictable. First there was the case of the ‘Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE)’ in 1974, at a time when Nehruvian idealism still found an esteemed position in the dismissal of many a realpolitik decision. This was then followed by the formal acknowledgement of India’s power as a state possessing nuclear weapons in 1998, when only a decade before the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan had put forth a clear-cut plan that would have eventually led to universal nuclear disarmament by 2010. These contradictions have only highlighted the ambiguity in India’s nuclear behaviour and put a question mark on the ulterior motives that guide it. Moreover, the debates that have attempted to solve this puzzle have often limited themselves to two major concerns that drive India’s behaviour: National security and energy. However, in their own capacities they have often left out a cardinal element, that of morality.
The strand of thought that focuses on morality has covertly found a way into the justification and explanation of India’s nuclear behaviour, and even now succeeds in defining the debates that shape it. In India, there are three major strands that form the base of debates surrounding its nuclear behaviour; those stemming from concerns about national security, international regimes and nuclear energy. First, the contradictions within the national security aspect can be highlighted by delving into the doctrines of credible minimum deterrence and no first use. India’s insistence that it needs to maintain a ‘credible minimum deterrence’ in order to buttress its national security, and at the same time uphold the doctrine of ‘no first use’, is coloured with undertones that depict issues of moral responsibility. This is indeed an attempt to ensure credibility of not only its nuclear deterrent but also its moral foreground wherein abstinence from first use (even in a threatening situation) is aimed to take the sting out of actual possession.
Secondly, India’s relationship vis-à-vis nuclear regimes, especially the NPT, have been forever wrought with many paradoxes. In this case, the narratives on morality are more subtle, though definitely traceable, as on one hand India purports to support the cause of universal disarmament, and on the other it insists on maintaining a nuclear deterrent itself. Moreover, its reluctance to join the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state is based on the premise that the NPT perpetuates superficial discrimination between the haves and the haves-not, thus raising fundamental questions over the ‘righteousness’ of this regime. Another dimension that highlights India’s ‘moral’ dilemma is the escalating concern over proliferation and nuclearization (more nuclear reactors for civil as well as military purposes), which has been directly proportional to the pressure on India by the international community to enter into the folds of international nuclear regimes, a step which India has been reluctant to take. In a sense then, India’s claims to support the new disarmament momentum initiated by Obama’s Prague speech in 2009 while enhancing deterrence, has entailed frequent friction between international expectations, national security concerns and issues of morality and justness.
A third case in this debate revolves around India’s position on the need for nuclear energy. Imperative to this point is India’s effort to decrease its reliance on fossil fuel to meet the energy requirements of an ever-growing population without increasing its carbon footprint. Its absolute opposition to the idea of joining the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state in order to avail assistance in its civil nuclear ambitions has often proved to be a roadblock, one which has been eliminated by the recent NSG waiver, and professed nuclear cooperation with states like the US and France. Interestingly, the main bargaining chip in these collaborations has been India’s credibility as a ‘responsible and moral’ actor. More interesting is the fact that India has played this chip many a time in order to obtain what it desires. Fundamental to this assertion is the question of whether the image of India as a moral, responsible actor is more than just a mere disguised justification on its end to achieve what it aspires. And if this is indeed true, it is crucial to understand why the response of the international community has been affirmative as far as India’s nuclear aspirations are concerned.
Answers to these questions do not assert a clear-cut distinction between the ideas of ‘moral responsibility’ as a rhetoric or reality in the shaping of India’s nuclear behaviour, rather they are concepts that are overlapping and have been internalized by India’s strategic community, perhaps a mere ‘means’ to achieve the desired ‘ends’. So on one hand, India has sought to seek credible minimum deterrence and nuclear energy requirements (while abstaining from international nuclear regimes like the NPT); on the other, these very aspirations have been facilitated by India’s crystal clear record as a responsible actor, perhaps even a ‘moral’ one. It is therefore clear that India’s realpolitik endeavours, guised in moral terms, have often blurred the lines between rhetoric and reality.