As the dust settles

01 Jun, 1998    ·   105

P. R. Chari wonders whether the nuclear tests have really addressed or aggravated the security concerns

Three weeks after India ’s dramatic nuclear statement in the Pokharan desert some of the questions raised and answers provided soon after that event can be revisited.



Why were these nuclear tests conducted? It has now become clear that the security rationale advanced by the BJP government to justify them was vastly exaggerated. Besides, the irrepressible Defence Minister’s constant iteration that China , apart from Pakistan , comprised the security threat to India has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.



China is deeply aggrieved. What has offended it most piquantly is the Indian Prime Minister’s identification of China as the threat in his letter to President Clinton. That letter was leaked to the press, reflecting the American Administration’s anger and its desire to embarrass India further. And, as widely anticipated, Pakistan has also tested its atomic device(s), and informed that it could equip its 1500-km range Ghauri missile with nuclear warheads. In consequence, the nuclear option possessed by Pakistan and India —meaning their capability to manufacture nuclear weapons—has moved from under the table to a central position atop it.



The sense is now dawning on New Delhi that its security problems have worsened, and that it has become hostage to the Indo-Pak nuclear standoff. The realization is also growing that "Ground Zero" would most probably be the North Block-South Block complex of government buildings. The Sino-Pak linkage, moreover, has encrusted into a nuclear axis. Pakistan had consulted China before undertaking its nuclear tests. All this spells the beginning of a new wisdom!



Further, the BJP government had believed that India could weather the mandatory sanctions that the United States would impose if India tested; but that India ’s acquisition of nuclear status would cement Indo-US ties to counter China . This has proved a serious miscalculation. American non-proliferation concerns have taken precedence once again over its foreign policy calculations, at least over the short run.



The BJP government claims to have evaluated all possible adverse implications before conducting these tests? Currently, however, India’s nuclear tests have driven Pakistan more firmly into China’s embrace; halted—temporarily, at least—the steadily growing normalisation of Sino-Indian relations; and ensured US neutrality, if not active support, to Sino-Pak linkages developing against India. The literature informs that, apart from security concerns, the motivations inspiring countries to derive their nuclear option are bureaucratic-scientific momentum. And prestige.



It seems that pressures from the scientists in the Atomic Energy Commission/ Defence Research & Development Organisation were operating. They urged that the skills acquired in making nuclear devices needed to be proven. The older generation of scientists was passing into retirement, and the younger ones needed to establish their credentials. Besides the new, post-Pokharan weapon designs that had been developed through computer simulation and laboratory (hydrodynamic?) tests had to be field-tested. This was especially necessary to prove the thermo-nuclear (hydrogen) device, and the sub-kiloton devices. Together the five tests conducted have, apparently, provided the data needed by the scientists to conduct sub-critical (hydronuclear) tests.



Moreover, the window of opportunity for conducting these tests was closing. Article XIV (2) of the CTBT adumbrates that if this Treaty did not enter into force by September 1999 a conference of the subscribing states would be called to " consider and decide by consensus what measures consistent with international law may be undertaken to accelerate the ratification process." Indian policy makers believe that the latent threat in this formulation is that sanctions will be applied upon critical non-entrants into the CTBT. Hence these nuclear tests had to be conducted urgently before that trap closed. Furthermore, it was (naïvely?) calculated that the Clinton visit was six months away. Sufficient time remained, therefore, for the dust to settle, and the visit to proceed as scheduled. Of course, the Ghauri test and attendant bombast by Pakistan provided the perfect excuse for the Indian scientists to have their way.



Were prestige motivations operating? As when Britain and France became nuclear weapons powers in 1952 and 1960 respectively. The short answer is, yes. But, in terms of domestic politics. This was apparent when BJP cadres sought to take "credit" for these tests by organizing countrywide celebrations. They included the construction of a " Shakti" (Strength) temple at Pokharan and distribution of its "holy" sands. Obviously earlier governments had been working away at developing these nuclear devices during their tenures. Consequently, the Opposition parties, and even the BJP’s coalition partners, resented their exclusion from sharing the "credit". This explains their bitter criticism of the BJP’s feckless actions that have isolated India in the world. Anyway, the explosion of Pakistan ’s several nuclear devices have taken the gloss off the prestige consideration. China’s angry reaction to the Indian tests, and growing realization of the fuller implications of the sanctions imposed has minimized the glamour of these tests.



The current mood is one of introspection. Some people are even asking the uncomfortable question: were these tests necessary?