March 29, 2020
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Testing The Heavy Waters

The evolution of India's nuclear policy proceeds apace, but can it secure the desired concessions?

Testing The Heavy Waters

THE bravado has been replaced by pragmatism. Faced with international pressure, the government is trying to put its act together on the nuclear issue. Two months after the tests, it is finally setting about defining—or rather redefining—its position on nuclear disarmament, particularly the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). And it seems to be making headway. So what if it means giving up the high moral ground India had occupied for the last 40 years?

A top official close to prime minister A.B.Vajpayee let it be known that India could sign the CTBT if curbs on transfer of dual-use technology to India are lifted. Besides, New Delhi is against fullscope safeguards on nuclear power plant technology that India wants to import from the West. Of course, this is contrary to what Vajpayee told Rajya Sabha on Friday, that India would not sign the CTBT under pressure from the nuclear powers or allow them to stall its N-weaponisation and missile programmes.

Flip-flops in India's nuclear policy have not been uncommon in recent years. So are we witnessing a trial balloon or articulation of India's policy? A deal in return for signing the treaty? Opinion is divided, but increasingly it looks so, official statements notwithstanding. After all, on May 11, the PM's principal secretary Brajesh Mishra had announced that India would be willing to adhere to some provisions of the CTBT depending "on a number of reciprocal activities".

Some observers feel the government has made this move in response to the international uproar. On May 11 Mishra had talked only of adhering to some provisions, which was laughed off since the CTBT can't be adhered to selectively. "I think the rough language used by the Americans has shaken them," said a senior Indian diplomat.

But if India signs now, wouldn't it be going back on all that it contested when it refused to sign the CTBT in 1996? No, says strategic analyst C. Raja Mohan: "While the text remains the same, the context is different." Today India is a nuclear weapon state (NWS); if India had signed the CTBT without testing and achieving its present status as an NWS it would have closed the nuclear option nurtured for decades. "Basically, our open option strategy had come under threat. Everything else that was said was justifications for us to keep out. We didn't sign the NPT also because it would have taken away our nuclear option," notes Raja Mohan.

 Jasjit Singh, director of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, agrees: "The most logical thing for India is to sign the treaty. It has two types of objections, technical and substantive." Among the substantive objections he lists India's security concerns, lack of linkage of the treaty to time-bound nuclear disarmament and a test ban that is not comprehensive in that it allows sub-critical tests and computer simulation. The problem with the intrusive verification regime he terms as a technical objection. Singh says India's security concerns have been addressed. As for disarmament, India itself is moving toward arming itself with N-weapons. Hence he asks: "Are your concerns about disarmament the same as two years ago? We don't have to behave cynically like the NWS. We must push for N-disarmament."

 But India's former ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, Arundhati Ghose, is opposed to signing the CTBT: "We had a national consensus on not signing it. There was no national consensus on weaponisation. If you look at the small print of the treaty, it won't be in our interest to sign it. I didn't expect this government to go around bartering away our interests for technology which we won't get." That is the crux of the problem. Dual-use technology has been denied to India not because it did not sign the CTBT, but because it refused to sign the NPT. The economic and trade sanctions have been imposed for nuclear testing, says Ghose. She feels the PMO should consult scientists and the ministry of defence before striking any deal.

But many analysts feel that India should cash in on the leverage it has gained by going nuclear. Says strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney: "Unless India is co-opted into the nuclear non-proliferation regime, this regime will crumble. We have a few trump cards which we need to use to the fullest extent possible." What about the negotiations between India and the US, the second round of which ended in Frankfurt on Thursday between Vajpayee's special emissary Jaswant Singh and US deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott, apparently without achieving anything? Chellaney asserts that at present India is only "beating the traditional nuclear powers by saying it is willing to sign the treaty on the basis of reciprocal actions. It does not mean that we will sign it. We are trying to find out what concessions are possible." He doesn't view this as a reversal of India's stand on the CTBT: "They are playing a game, we are also playing a game. In fact, the Clinton visit is being used to apply pressure on us, to force us to put our cards on the table. We should forget the visit for the time being." The next round is scheduled for July 20 and 21 in New Delhi.

CLEARLY the government is hopeful that some kind of agreement can be struck, though the US has declared India and Pakistan must sign the CTBT unconditionally. The whole purpose of the secret parleys is to arrive at a solution to bridge the gap between India and the N-powers, particularly the US. India will not be averse to giving up its sovereign right to test, but it must get something in return. Publicly both sides are likely to maintain hardline positions. While getting CTBT through is a foreign policy coup Clinton is seeking, striking a deal with nuclear India could be seen as setting a bad example of rewarding the bad boy. Strong lobbies are working in the US to dilute sanctions. On Friday the Senate lifted only agricultural sanctions against India and Pakistan, which means nothing for India. London also hit out on Friday by banning export of all N-related goods to the two countries, which many see as meaningless because there is hardly any export.

But selling the idea of signing the CTBT domestically is not going to be easy for Vajpayee either. An establishment which was opposed to the treaty till recently will find it tough to explain the change. For instance, what happens to the moral high ground India took for so many years on the disarmament issue? An analyst says it was just a "googly" that India threw to get out of the CTBT in the later stages. He says India should forget the morality, adding "we have to look after our security interests". But Ghose differs: "We fav-our an N-weapon free world. Now we are in a stronger position to push for it." Singh concurs: "Disarmament isn't only a moral issue. It touches our national security. If there are no N-weapon powers impinging on our security, we will be better off."

Besides, all the objections that India had to the CTBT have not been addressed. Take the intrusive verification regime. It is now being said that it is non-discriminatory since it will be applicable to all signatories. Ghose dismisses this: "Our national technical means are not sufficiently sophisticated. Can you imagine asking the Americans to allow an on-site inspection of the Lawrence Liver-more Laboratory?" The verifica-tion regime will be almost like fullscope safeguards, she cautions. For instance, Ghose points out, there is a provision for monitoring noble gases which are emitted by nuclear reactors. India has the filters but these are not enough to prevent the emissions, which if detected can invite harassing on-site inspections.

But where the government has failed is in forging a national consensus on the nuclear issue in the post-Pokhran scenario. It is necessary to reach out to other political parties. That is precisely what Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee complained about in Rajya Sabha. Incisive political direction is still lacking. People still remember Narasimha Rao sending Vajpayee to Geneva. Though former prime minister I.K. Gujral gave a masterly performance in New York just last week, defending the rationale for the tests, it appeared to be a one-off act. And the government did not seem to have had a hand in it.

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