Real strength lies in restraint,” Sonia Gandhi said 10 days after India conducted its second series of nuclear tests on 11 May and 13 May 1998, “not in the display of shakti.” She could not have been more wrong.
At the time of her speech, India had spent a decade fighting a proxy war against a Pakistan that China had brazenly armed—with American connivance—with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. India’s protestations that it was a victim of both cross-border terrorism and illegal nuclear and missile proliferation got nowhere. The nuclear powers had perverted the entire edifice of nuclear disarmament by legitimizing their own nuclear arsenals in perpetuity. They were coercing India to constrain and give up its nuclear weapons programme. It was abundantly clear that India’s display of restraint was being exploited as a sign of weakness.
Pokhran II changed that as it demonstrated to the world that India was ready to incur costs in defending its national interests.
Ten years after the nuclear tests, there is now a veritable cottage industry of books, newspaper articles and seminars on the emergence of India as a rising power in Asia. In fact, much to the discomfort of India’s political-intellectual circles, the world is now racing ahead to proclaim India a rising global power. Now, there is a reasonable argument that sustained economic growth is responsible for this transformation. But it is undeniable that the nuclear tests made India a far more credible actor in the international arena. Both because India’s nuclear status was unambiguous and because Pokhran II demonstrated that New Delhi was capable of taking calculated strategic risks where it mattered.
Despite enormous popular support, Pokhran II drew criticism on the grounds of morality, ideology, pragmatism and strategy.
First, those morally opposed to nuclear weapons naturally criticized the tests and subsequent weaponization. But international relations are not a morality play. And, even where interests coincided with morality—on nuclear disarmament, for instance—India’s positions were not credible before May 1998 because it was seen speaking as a have-not. Second, the Left’s vociferous, ideology-laden, criticism of India’s nuclear weapons is all very well, but it is contradicted by the Left’s own hypocritical silence when it comes to China’s arsenal.
Third, Amartya Sen argued that the tests allowed Pakistan to obtain a psychological advantage and claim a certain strategic parity with a much larger India. This seemingly plausible argument ignores that by 1998, a form of nuclear deterrence was already in place as both nations were aware of each other’s nuclear programmes. A.Q. Khan had left nothing to the imagination by announcing several times since the mid-1980s that not only did Pakistan have the bomb, it was prepared to be the first to use it. Moreover, as K. Subrahmanyam has pointed out, unlike India, Pakistan had no pressing technical need to test its warheads in 1998 —these were proven designs that China had transferred to it. Indeed, any “psychological advantage” Pakistan might have gained faded away as it plunged into an economic meltdown due to international sanctions following tests.
Finally, there are strategists who argue that the tests were unnecessary for the purposes of deterrence, as it was already well known that India had the bomb. They are not wrong. But with the benefit of hindsight it is clear that while the costs of Pokhran II were short-term, there were long-term benefits.
Making the ownership of the arsenal explicit and announcing a doctrine based on no-first use helped reduce the risks of nuclear war to the extent that it reduced uncertainties. By forcing the world’s nuclear powers to acknowledge a new reality, the tests paved the way for events that place on the verge of expanding both its use of nuclear energy and its nuclear arsenal by way of deals such as the one India is finalizing with the United States.
But, didn’t General Pervez Musharraf exploit the nuclear umbrella to launch the Kargil war? Well, he did. He also found out that it was a foolish thing to do. Kargil also held out a lesson for India’s defence planners—that nuclear weapons are not a substitute for conventional superiority at lower levels of conflict. India must, in other words, pay attention to the conventional military balance along its borders.
Ten years after India declared itself a nuclear-weapons state, we are reconciled to the possession of nuclear weapons but remain unclear as to their utility. On the one hand, India’s nuclear doctrine is shaped by the beliefs that nuclear weapons are illegitimate, a nuclear war is unwinnable and that India’s weapons are primarily meant to deter potential adversaries. Hence, the call for a minimum credible deterrent, survivable second-strike capability and the pursuit of disarmament. On the other, there is a school of strategic thought that believes in a more open-ended approach towards the nuclear arsenal, a more muscular nuclear posture, and rejects disarmament. The gap between the two schools has played out in the debate over the India-US nuclear deal.
Regardless of where one stands on this, it is abundantly clear that translating the geopolitical advantage into foreign policy outcomes requires an altogether higher level of skill than seen in the last decade. The National Democratic Alliance government and to a lesser extent the United Progressive Alliance have been successful in compelling the US to bear on Pakistan to halt jihadi terrorism in Kashmir.
But, the record is poorer when it comes to balancing Chinese power in and around the subcontinent. This is likely to be a big challenge. By January 2007, Gandhi declared that nuclear weapons had become “even more of a terrifying reality” and “the very currency of power”. This time, she had it right.
Nitin Pai is editor of Pragati— The Indian National Interest Review, a publication on strategic affairs, public policy and governance. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org