In the 50th year of Independence, there are people who still ask whether Partition was a good thing. Fifty years hence people will be asking whether we were right in exercising the nuclear option at this time. Our decision is an extraordinary shift from all our reasoned and consensus-based positions on defence. The fundamentals of our thinking, beliefs and doctrine have been put on a new course. One must ask if it was a critical national need. Previous prime ministers have said in Parliament that our security scenario had not changed to warrant the tests. There seemed to have been no compulsions. Militarily nothing had changed. Previous governments did not go in for the tests despite having the capability and the demands from some quarters for tests. Their strategic perspective on national security did not indicate that India would gain by such action.
How successful were we in handling our disputes with China and Pakistan and how have things changed with India going nuclear?
These were two main security challenges faced by India since Independence. Efforts have been continuing since Rajiv Gandhi's time to constructively interact with China through negotiation. Successive PMs continued the good work. We even had a Sino-Indian accord which was a significant achievement in ruling out a war with China. The issue was handled with skill and maturity. India's management of the border dispute was a model of handling disputes with a stronger neighbour. We were moving slowly but perceptibly towards the possibility of a solution to the border dispute. All that has received a setback. Whether a nuclear bomb was more important than settling the border dispute honorably with China will be debated for long. As for Pakistan, nuclear weapons in themselves will not help solve the Kashmir problem. Militancy and proxy war will get acute under the overt nuclear status of the two nations. A sub-conventional war of the kind India is having to fight in J&K flourishes when nuclear weapons make conventional wars unlikely.
In the past have the services chiefs voiced a need to go nuclear?
They have asked for deterrence which was a professional military opinion. The strategic and political judgement of the governments was to meet the need by a nuclear weapons capability short of weaponising. That strategic perspective gave a strong bargaining position with considerable influence and served India's cause well.
Have we lost by going nuclear? What must be done to save the situation?
I am not worried about sanctions and embargoes. We can live through them. But through decades of restraint and our principled positions on the NPT, CTBT, FMCT, we had forced the nuclear five to acknowledge our security needs. We had created for India a nuclear space in which to manoeuvre to secure our interests. That space is now considerably reduced after declaring ourselves a nuclear weapons state. We can still recreate that space by not isolating ourselves and by using the nuclear capability constructively. It would require a shift in our outlook on nuclear weapons as the means to negotiate and secure our interests, and not as an instrument of deterrence. This can be done not by weaponising, but with a unilateral declaration of no first use, and by reinforcing the arms control and disarmament movement. India will have demonstrate its dependability and maturity in using nuclear weapons for peace. Nuclearisation has placed every Indian citizen in the nuclear firing line. The people deserve that the new policy brings peace instead of enhanced insecurity.
How do you assess nuclear weapons as instruments of deterrence?
Nuclear deterrence is at the best of times an unstable phenomenon. It leads to an unrelenting pressure on others to acquire the means to deter. Deterrence works if the adversary responds in predictable and rational ways. One can never be sure of it. Deterrence can be viewed by the adversary in crisis as a live threat. It will then lead to deterrent action by the opponent with catastrophic consequences. Deterrence needs to be managed with great skill and patience. It requires constant communication with the opponent and a dialogue-encouraging ambience, even in crisis situations. It demands avoidance of provocation and building of confidence. Nuclear deterrence was a Cold War construct and worked—with many close calls—when there were two opponents. Our deterrent, for what it is worth, will operate in a three-cornered contest. It will make nuclear deterrence a very complex and dangerous ball game indeed.