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The Buddha is still smiling

Last updated on: May 20, 2008 17:17 IST

May 11 marked the 10th anniversary of the Pokhran II nuclear tests conducted by India, with then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the helm of a Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in New Delhi at the time.

Two days later, May 13, India carried out a second series of tests and became a de facto nuclear weapons power. The nuclear 'option' that India had kept open for almost 24 years -- from Pokhran I of May 18, 1974, which was qualified as a peaceful nuclear explosion -- was finally exercised by the National Democratic Alliance government.

The elusive nuclear Rubicon had been crossed by Delhi, and this action had a definitive impact on the prevailing regional strategic order. A de facto sixth nuclear power followed China, which had joined this club in October 1964. Predictably, one section of the global community led by the United States (and supported by China) -- which was taken by complete surprise -- were very, very irate, and this was conveyed to India in no unmistakable terms.

It is relevant to recall that the response from other quarters was less critical, and this group included de jure nuclear powers France and Russia. However, the United Nations Security Council closed ranks and passed a censorious resolution that dwelt on the sanctity of nuclear non-proliferation -- the sub-text being that new members were not welcome. At a bilateral level India was placed under US strictures.

 A decade later, an objective cost-benefit analysis would suggest that India has not only weathered the criticism and punitive actions levelled against it, but has also managed to significantly improve the orientation and nature of its relationship with the US and the global order.

Despite the extremely shrill and intemperate response of the State Department in May 1998, it merits recall that in less than two years -- that is, by March 2000 -- then President Bill Clinton paid an extended five-day visit to India, and India-US ties were placed on even keel.

An immediate fall-out of the May 1998 tests was that it lanced the nuclear boil that had festered for 24 years, and infected the Indo-US relationship. It is not a savoury metaphor, but May 1998 cleared the bilateral abscess of the puss and venom that had accreted for a quarter of a century. The Clinton team did not endorse Pokhran II, but reluctantly accepted the reality that India had crossed the divide.

In 2001, President George W Bush's team brought renewed vigour to improve ties with India, and the improved texture was no doubt enabled by the fact that the Bush administration did not exude the same kind of misplaced, one-size-fits-all kind of nuclear non-proliferation zealotry.

To its credit, the Bush administration in its second term completely re-oriented the relationship with India and recast the template. The contentious nuclear issue that had estranged the world's oldest and largest democracies was converted into an area of innovative cooperation.

The July 18, 2005, civilian nuclear cooperation agreement was mooted, and the signal to the world was that India would be accorded an exceptional status despite being a non-signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and that Delhi would be gradually brought out of the ostracism that had been imposed on it and be allowed to enter the loop of global nuclear commerce.

It is a different matter that domestic politics in India has stalled the July 2005 agreement, and this is more a reflection of the impoverishment of strategic thinking and assessment amongst our lawmakers and the timidity of senior political leaders, who have collectively demonstrated a lack of integrity and commitment of purpose as regards India's abiding national interests.

In terms of regional security, Pokhran II has accorded India an overt but modest WMD capability, and this will help assuage Delhi's deeper anxiety about the intent of Beijing. Without Pokhran II, India would have become even more subaltern in its relation to China -- and this is an exigency that would have a negative cascading effect on the Indo-Pak relationship -- as derived from the close Sino-Pak WMD relationship.

It is  to be noted that India does not seek equivalence with China in the nuclear domain, but it needed this demonstration of nuclear weapon capability to safeguard its security interests and limited strategic autonomy.

Paradoxically, a post Pokhran II India will allow for the emergence of a certain degree of strategic equipoise in the Asian grid -- which otherwise would have become uni-polar with China as the dominant power. And this pattern would have inhibited the gradual movement towards multi-polarity that both China and India seek!

The final strand is the manner in which Pokhran II brought Pakistan's nuclear capability out of the closet. Pakistan's covert nuclear weapon capability and the audacity with which it had embarked upon policies to up the ante against India as regards low intensity conflict and terrorism has been the subject of considerable speculation.

The Indian nuclear tests were followed by those of Pakistan in late May 1998 -- and the sub-continent moved from covert/recessed deterrence, which was inherently unstable, to a nascent, overt matrix of deterrence stability.

The Lahore accord of early 1999 sought to build on this, but the Musharraf-led Kargil adventure torpedoed this initiative.

Again, in a non-linear manner, Pakistan declaring its nuclear status, in my opinion, enabled the illumination of the A Q Khan network of nuclear proliferation, and the possible linkages with the non-state entity seeking WMD capability.

If Pokhran II had not taken place, it is possible that the A Q Khan network would have still been a murky iceberg, whose tip would have been obfuscated and ignored, as it had for three decades. Both global and regional interests have been well-served by this exposure.

In short, an objective cost-benefit analysis would suggest that India has been enabled in a distinctive manner by Pokhran II – and the strategic credibility of the country has been enhanced. Mere economic growth and an impressive forex reserve are inadequate as national capabilities by way of relevance in the 21st century.

It is a great irony and pity that the current inflexible position taken by the very political party -- the BJP -- that took the bold decision to conduct Pokhran II -- will shrink the multiple advantages and opportunities that May 1998 had given India. The elephant is poised to retreat into sullen isolation.

Commodore Uday Bhaskar an independent security analyst was acting director of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi. He can be contacted at cudayb@gmail.com

C Uday Bhaskar