Consequences of India Going Nuclear

15 Mar, 1998    ·   69

Munir Ahmad Khan, former Chairman, Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, comments on BJP's determination to exercise the nuclear option as stipulated in their Election Manifesto

India 's BJP government was voted into power on the basis of a manifesto that called for the open development of nuclear weapons and associated missile delivery systems. Now that the BJP is in office, will it deliver on its nuclear promise?



India offers many reasons to go overtly nuclear. They were forcefully and eloquently stated by Mr. Jaswant Singh, Vice President of the BJP, at an international seminar on global nuclear disarmament in New Delhi on 6 March 1998. He asserted that India was already a de facto nuclear power, and should simply declare itself to be a nuclear-weapon state. Unless everybody agrees to nuclear disarmament within the time frame it has proposed, India should not sign either the CTBT or the NPT, and begin conducting nuclear tests as needed, regardless of world opinion.



However, there is now a growing realisation worldwide that nuclear weapons are not militarily useful. The two major nuclear powers (as well as others) are now trying to reduce their stockpiles. If, contrary to today's realities, India begins conducting nuclear tests and developing an arsenal, the international response would be severe. India would have to pay a heavy political, economic and strategic price.



India would be isolated politically from every quarter, including the Third World , Asia , and even Russia . Soon after Singh's speech, the Russian delegate warned India of "serious consequences if it declares itself to be nuclear weapon state or carries out a nuclear test" (sic). Later in private conversations, a Russian diplomat stated that "A nuclear explosion by India could seriously undermine Indo-Soviet political and economic relations". Additionally, the US Ambassador in India strongly cautioned India that going nuclear would automatically lead to the curtailment of political, economic and technical co-operation between India and the US , in accordance with US laws. The British and the French have issued similar statements.



Perhaps the greatest setback would be economic. The BJP manifesto promised nuclear weapons to a country which is home to a large number of people living below the poverty line. India desperately needs foreign capital, technology and management skills, which would dry up as international economic co-operation with India dwindles.



Furthermore, possession of a few nuclear weapons does not make India a nuclear power. It must have an arsenal of different types of well-tested nuclear weapons, a versatile and reliable delivery system based upon field tests, an impenetrable control-and-command system, an ability to withstand a first strike, and above all, the economy to support all that. Nuclear power status does not come cheap. Nuclear warheads constitute less than 1/5 of the total cost of a country's nuclear establishment, while 4/5 goes for infrastructural and technological support. If India wants to be a real nuclear power it will have to divert extensive resources from economic development.



If India chooses to pay the enormous political and financial costs of going nuclear, another victim would be the hope for worldwide nuclear disarmament, as other countries would inevitably follow suit. Germany and Japan , the two leading economic and technological powers of the world, would be under strong pressure to go nuclear, and they have the means to do so more effectively than India . Both NPT and CTBT include provisions whereby the parties to these treaties can withdraw if their national security interests are threatened. Because of India 's action, there could be mass defections leading to a nuclear free-for-all.



The regional situation would change dramatically. So far India and Pakistan have followed a policy of nuclear ambiguity. If India were to go overtly nuclear and resume nuclear and missile testing, Pakistan would be forced to respond to protect its perceived vital national and security interests. India 's action would lead to a nuclear arms race in one of the poorest regions of the world, depriving 1/5 of humanity of any hope for peace and prosperity in the 21st century. This does not bode well for peace in the region.



Notwithstanding the nuclear rhetoric from India , the leadership is pragmatic and realistic. The new Prime Minister Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee is known to be a very level-headed politician who would not gamble India 's future to please the nuclear hawks. When explaining the national agenda of its coalition government, he was rather cautious. While it calls for exercising India 's nuclear option, Vajpayee said that "we are keeping the option open and if need be that option will be exercised. There is no time frame." This represents cautious backtracking from the announced BJP policy. One would hope that it reflects genuine realism and not a ploy to assuage the fears of the world.



It is difficult to predict what India will do. But before the nuclear flash point is reached in the subcontinent, the world should let India know of the consequences of any nuclear adventure.