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From Pokhran to Pokhran: The story of India’s nuclear journey

LiveMint logoLiveMint 13-05-2014 Gayatri Chandrasekaran

This week marks a double anniversary of two significant events. On 18 May, 1974, India carried out an atomic explosion, signalling to the world that it was ready to join the nuclear club. Twenty four years later, on 11 May, 1998, it test bombed its way into that elite group. There has been no looking back since then.

The two tests have been analysed from different perspectives, none of which tell a coherent story. From Indira Gandhi’s domestic ambitions to nuclear Hindutva of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and from India’s quest to deter China and Pakistan at the same time to its ambition of becoming a great power.

The story is more prosaic. It is one of India’s unsuccessful quest for seeking security from superpowers during the Cold War to realizing the harsh truth that no one was willing to come to its aid. India always had global ambitions but was always aware of the high cost of developing nuclear weapons.

Seeking America

India began toying with the idea of a nuclear weapon much after its defeat by China in 1962. When Beijing carried out its first nuclear test in 1964, it rattled India badly. New Delhi’s first reaction was to rush to the US and seek a security guarantee.

It did get an implicit one.

On 18 October, 1964, US president Lyndon Johnson tried to pacify non-nuclear countries against China’s nuclear blackmail. He said, “The nations that do not seek national nuclear weapons can be sure that if they need our strong support against some threat of nuclear blackmail, then they will have it.” (India’s Nuclear Odyssey: Implicit Umbrellas, Diplomatic Disappointments, and the Bomb by Andrew B. Kennedy, International Security, Volume 36, No 2, 2011, page 132)

What India was not told was that Johnson’s statement included India in this informal security umbrella. The US did not want to give an explicit commitment and India could not be assured by anything less than a formal assurance.

Indian leaders from Lal Bahadur Shastri to Indira Gandhi trooped to Washington constantly seeking assurance against China. The US never gave a formal guarantee but also never denied it would come to India’s aid in case of a Chinese attack. This left India uneasy but the thought of developing nuclear weapons never occurred. The option was considered too expensive.

From Russia with love

Within six years of Johnson’s statement, India landed in Russian arms. On 9 August, 1971, India and the Soviet Union signed a treaty of peace, friendship and cooperation.

Why did India leave the US for Russian comfort?

1971 was a year of tectonic shifts in geopolitics. That year, the US took the first steps that ended the Soviet Union in 1991. It befriended China. It also ended the informal guarantee the US had given to India. All this happened within a single month. When he left secretly for Beijing in July, US national security adviser Henry Kissinger told Indian leaders that better Sino-US relations would not come at the cost of security guarantees to India. When he returned, he disavowed US’ commitments to India.

Within a month, India signed the treaty with the Soviet Union.

The treaty had an explicit guarantee that assured India against an attack by a third party. It was this assurance (Article 9 of the treaty) that allowed India to proceed with the dismemberment of Pakistan.

For 20 years, India enjoyed Soviet guarantees and took no steps to develop its nuclear capabilities even as Pakistan and China continued to secretly collaborate on building nuclear weapons and the US looked the other way.

Friendless but aware at last

When the Cold War ended, so did the 1971 treaty with the Soviet Union. India lost its only superpower friend. With a menacing China and a hostile Pakistan, India was left with no choice.

Seen from this perspective, the years 1991-98 were perhaps the most dangerous years for India. It was left with no backer and was surrounded by enemies. Economically weak, it was in no position to build nuclear weapons and bear the burden of nuclear sanctions. It was also subjected to US pressure on Kashmir and human rights.

In spite of these adverse conditions, the then prime minister P.V. Narsimha Rao was ready to carry out a nuclear test. It was only extreme exertion of pressure by the US that prevented his government from proceeding with the test.

So when the BJP-led government carried out the tests in May 1998, it was not Hindutva that motivated nuclearization; it was merely resolving an old security dilemma. When defence minister George Fernandes cited China as a the key threat, he was not lying; it was the threat of China that India had sought to obviate when it chased futile security guarantees. India’s nuclear journey began with the Chinese threat and it ended with countering China.

This is one story that is not partisan. It is not about the BJP against the Congress; it has always been about India.

It is from this angle that India’s changing view on no first use of nuclear weapons should be seen. We will come to that story next week.

Global Roaming runs every Tuesday to take stock of international events and trends from a political and economic perspective.

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