July 12, 2020
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Fission And No Fizz

N-power status put India back a notch on all counts. What saved us from the hole: the economy.

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Fission And No Fizz
Jitender Gupta
Fission And No Fizz
In May 1998, India woke up to the reverberation of nuclear weapons. The government authorised five N-tests, including a thermonuclear weapon or fusion device. Predictably, there was a fair amount of public celebration. While the government of the day presented a serious, mature face to the world as it announced the tests, it was clear there was considerable satisfaction at India's nuclear coming of age.

What have the nuclear tests achieved? With hindsight, can we say the celebration and self-satisfaction were justified? Proponents of the test suggested that India as a nation would be more secure and confident, that Pakistan and China would get a strong message, that the United States and the West would have to take India more seriously as a power, and that our general stock in the world would rise.

The truth is probably none of those things has turned out to be correct, and if India has garnered respect internationally it is not because of the bomb. It's because of the economy, stupid!

Since '98, the relationship with Pakistan has not been significantly better than it was before the N-tests. We have been on a rollercoaster with our neighbour, and it hasn't all been fun. Here's the record: the Lahore summit in February '99; the Kargil war, May-July '99; the hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu to Kandahar in December '99; the Agra summit in July 2001; the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in December '01; the virtual break in diplomatic relations with Pakistan and the mobilisation of Indian forces in January '02; the terrorist attacks on an army camp in Jammu and on the Akshardham temple in Gujarat in '02; the ending of India's military mobilisation in '03; the return to the peace process later in '03; and the US' announcement that Pakistan is a major non-NATO ally in '04.

Before the N-tests, we had begun the six-plus-two talks (Kashmir, security, and six other issues) with Islamabad, and they were reasonably business-like. Today, eight years on, we aren't much further along the road.

How have things been with China since '98? It took India about two years to "untie the knot" with Beijing after we had suggested publicly that the tests were linked to the China threat. Since then, relations have been increasingly genial, but not more so than before. Before '98, we had got the Chinese to move away from Pakistan politically. Beijing had even conceded that Kashmir was a bilateral issue, a point we have insisted on since the Simla Agreement of 1972. In the '90s, prior to the tests, we had concluded a number of CBMs with China, our foreign ministers and PMs were meeting as never before, border talks were on, and trade was growing at rapid pace.

Today, it's true that we are back more or less to the same happy position with Beijing as before '98. But it would be nonsense to claim the N-tests got us there! Moreover, differences with Beijing persist. China has not taken us so seriously as to support us for permanent membership in the UN or put its weight behind our candidate for secretary-general. Nor has it held back on its criticism of the N-deal with the US.

With the Western powers, and the US in particular, things would seem to be better than ever. Is that because of the tests or despite them? American motives are fairly complex, they don't begin and end with N-weapons. From the early '80s onwards, when Indira Gandhi was back in power after the Janata interregnum and Ronald Reagan was in the White House, Indian and US interests have converged in a number of areas. By the early '90s, with Clinton in power, the enthusiasm was at an all-time high. India's democracy, its size, its economic and military potential, its reforms, all these were drawing Western attention. Nukes were not the cause of Washington's amiable gaze.

The US' attraction to India currently rests on a number of propositions: as a bulwark against China, as a working Third World democracy, as a multicultural pluralist society, as a check against Islamic radicalism, as a partner against terrorism, as an ally to scare Pakistan into cooperating with the US, as an educational and technological powerhouse (in the not-so-distant future), as an outsourcing adjunct of the US economy, as a peacekeeper. India as an N-power is not very high on that list of energising images in American minds. It is not the reason for taking India seriously, if indeed the US does take India all that seriously.

Finally, have the nukes caused our stock to rise more in the world? India's stock was on the rise for many of the reasons listed above. It is at least plausible to suggest that the N-tests have ensured that we will not get a permanent seat on the UN Security Council for quite some years to come, and that had we not tested we might have been a more serious contender.

Why should N-weapons cause us to be taken more seriously in any case? Will Indian nukes be available to defend anyone except India? Hardly. Will India's nuclear programme be an exportable commodity, and is that why our stock has risen? If the military part of the programme is exported, we will be in seriously bad odour with most of the world. If the civilian part is exported, it'd be a miracle given where our nuclear technology is!

Do N-weapons indicate that India is now a real military and diplomatic player, that it has the will to power finally and can take hard decisions? Is that what has impressed the world? If that's so, then Pakistan is more or less our equal as a military/diplomatic power! Not exactly the company we fantasise about keeping. The reason why India matters more than Pakistan is because of quite other things we bring to the table of international politics. And it is mostly economic.

So here is my view of what has changed in the past 11 years, at least strategically: we have become ever more delusional about ourselves. We think we are more secure than before because we have nuclear weapons, when the truth is that we almost went to war twice—in '99 and '02—after declaring ourselves an N-weapons power! And we think we can strut around the world stage and demand respect because we have nukes, when the truth is—"It's the economy, stupid!"

(Bajpai is headmaster, Doon School)
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