It’s Time to Tweak the Nuclear Policy

Published in Hindustan Times on May 15, 2023

India’s nuclear tests on May 11 and 13, 1998, stunned the world. This was not the first; in 1974, India had tested but called it a peaceful nuclear explosion (PNE). This time, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee declared that India was now a nuclear-weapon-state. Addressing parliament on the subject on May 27, he also placed a paper – “Evolution of India’s Nuclear Policy” – that provided the rationale for the tests and spelt out the elements of India’s doctrine that defined India as a reluctant but responsible nuclear power.

When India refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, its “nuclear option” was born. In subsequent decades, preserving the option became the primary political and diplomatic objective. Through more than three decades of domestic political changes, policy continuity was sustained.

Meanwhile, Pakistan pushed ahead with its programme and by early 1980s, it was enriching uranium at Kahuta and by late 1980s, had weaponised its deterrent with Chinese help. As the frontline state in the United States’ covert war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Pakistan managed to make the U.S. turn a blind eye to its nuclear developments.

There was a growing realisation that given technological advances since the 1974 PNE, the “nuclear option” could no longer remain viable and needed to be exercised. Post Cold War global developments with tightening dual-use export controls were also squeezing the Indian option. In 1995, the NPT was extended into perpetuity, freezing a nuclear order that India had long considered arbitrary and discriminatory. Negotiations on a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) began in 1994 with the Clinton administration pushing to complete it in 1996.

In 1995, France and China were still undertaking tests to validate designs and acquire data that would help sustain their capabilities with ‘zero-yield’ tests in their laboratories. Prime Minister Narsimha Rao gave the green light for tests and preparatory work began at Pokhran. In early December, days before the tests were scheduled, U.S. satellites picked up imagery of activity at Pokhran. The tests were postponed till after the general elections and meanwhile, Indian stand on the CTBT negotiations hardened.

Prime Minister Vajpayee toyed with the idea of the tests in 1996 but decided against it as his tenure was a mere 13 days. The next opportunity arose when he became PM again in 1998, and the die was cast.

The 1998 declaration of India as a nuclear-weapon-state marked a decisive break. It generated its own challenges, both domestic and external. A new kind of policy continuity was crafted. Domestically, it related to the nuclear doctrine and the configuration of the nuclear arsenal into the defence and decision-making structures. Externally, it was to gain acceptance as a responsible nuclear power and second, to stabilise deterrence relations with India’s adversaries.

After 25 years, the domestic challenge is still a work in progress. To maintain a credible minimum deterrent, a nuclear triad was considered necessary. The land-based missile force has now inducted Agni IV with an estimated range of 3500 kms. Agni V and Agni VI are expected to extend the ranges to beyond 6000 kms. The nuclear submarine programme has made slow progress with Arihant having undertaken its firs patrol last year. However, it currently carries K-15 (Sagarika) missile that has a limited range of 700 kms. Longer range missiles are under development.

Though India has no intention of embarking on a nuclear arms race with any other country, it must factor in technological developments that can have an impact on the credibility of its deterrent. Increasing use of dual use systems like hypersonics and cruise missiles, conventional precision global strike weapons blur the dividing line between nuclear and conventional systems. Digitisation renders both early warning systems and command and control systems vulnerable to counter-space and offensive cyber action.

These developments have led to questions as to how to define the ‘minimum’ and whether the no-first-use policy needs review. Some critics point to Kargil in 1999 and the Mumbai attacks in 2008 as evidence of failure of nuclear deterrence and would advocate a more robust posture. However, such criticism is ill founded. Indian doctrine is intended to deter threat and use of nuclear weapons. Dealing with Kargil-type attacks or terrorist strikes requires building conventional and intelligence capabilities that can offer a range of response options.

The external diplomatic challenge of gaining acceptance as a responsible nuclear power has been achieved in great measure. The Vajpayee government was proactive in reaching out to key countries, particularly the U.S. since it had taken the lead in condemning the tests and calling for sanctions.

The dialogue between Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh between 1998 and 2000 remains the most intense phase of bilateral engagement with 18 rounds of talks in 24 months. It remained inconclusive in not meeting either side’s stated objectives; yet, it was immensely productive in clearing the path towards the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership and eventually the India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement following the exceptional waiver by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 2008 – another milestone that completes 15 years in 2023. The NSG waiver legitimised India’s civilian nuclear trade and has enabled over a dozen cooperation agreements to be concluded.

This has been possible because the post-1998 policy too has been marked by a similar continuity that characterised it in its early years. Today, changing geopolitics has revived rivalries among major nuclear powers even as the geopolitical centre of gravity has shifted from Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific. Navigating these challenges may need policy adjustments that will be strengthened by consensus and continuity.


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