Skip to main content
Article

Nuclear Weapons and Conflict in South Asia

Stephen P. Cohen

This is a revised and expanded version of a note originally prepared for the Department of Energy, August 1998, as part of a project on the future of US-South Asian relations.

How did India reach the point where four or five men could and did step across an important threshold and order the detonation of nuclear devices that were unashamedly designed as weapons and then publicly declare that India was a nuclear weapon state?

Reconstructing the events that led to the May tests is not merely an historical exercise. The decision to test these weapons was important. It tenuously set India on the path of nuclear weaponization (tenuously because there is no consensus in India as to what weaponization means). The Indian tests led directly to the subsequent Pakistani tests. The decision to test may also have dealt a death blow to the American-led process of containing proliferation by a strategy of treaty adherence.

The tests certainly made South Asia a more dangerous place, and possibly a less-stable one. It has been known for some time that even a small-scale nuclear incident would produce casualties of unprecedented magnitude given the region’s weak medical and emergency infrastructure and the close proximity of urban areas to likely targets. Even a single nuclear detonation over a major South Asian city would produce considerable devastation. A ‘small’ nuclear war would be an unprecedented catastrophe for the region, a major one would have global physical, environmental and biological repercussions.

Further, there will be future thresholds to cross and perhaps even a reconsideration of India’s nuclear policy. The decision to conduct these tests was initially greeted with widespread praise, but this has given way to an increasingly sober consideration of the new risks and costs that they engendered.

While we do not know all of the details we can draw the broad contours of the history of decision and indecision that led to these tests. Aristotle suggests that the beginning of wisdom is to classify, followed by the development of theories that more fully explain events, decisions, and actions. Our approach is primarily an attempt at classification: to sort out the major variables and trends that made possible the final decision to test. Whether India and Pakistan convert their present devices into deliverable weapons, develop a command and control structure and doctrine and deploy them are questions beyond the immediate scope of this paper.

Our framework derives from the literature that tries to systematically explain why complex events occur. Such events as military coups, airplane crashes, or championship basketball seasons do not happen randomly or by accident, and are usually the product of a complex chain of factors, variables and decisions (or the absence of decision).

In the case of important decisions by states key long term factors typically include geography, the economic and human resources available its leaders, and the deepest assumptions and beliefs held by the Indian policy -making community. The latter is especially important in the decision to test because it was least understood by many foreign observers.

There are also a number of intermediate, mid-term factors, such as economic circumstances, security considerations, and domestic politics that influence foreign and security policy. Such factors do not usually change rapidly and (like the weather) predictions of tomorrow’s events, if based upon today’s policies, are frequently correct.

Finally, there is the short-term: a matter of hours, days, or weeks during which the play of events might lead decision-down one path or another. The coup takes place, the plane crashes, the final basket is scored.

Our overall conclusion is that the decision to test or at least to break out of India’s strategic cul de sac had been influenced by medium-term events that took place largely over the last six to ten years. Most, but not all, of what we call medium-term factors pointed in the direction of a strategic ‘breakout,’ although not necessarily in the shape it finally assumed. For example, immediately before the tests took place the head of the BJP’s foreign policy cell suggested that India might not test but could still declare itself to be a nuclear weapon state—until the tests actually took place this seemed at the time to be the most plausible step that the government might take.

The long term factors that framed this decision had not significantly changed, nor were the short term calculations that critical. The decision may not have been prudent, and certainly its implementation left much to be desired (India’s post-test diplomacy has been roundly criticized by many of those who supported the test itself), but this only highlights the significance of the medium term, over the long or short term.

The long term: a frustrated great state
Several nearly immutable factors influence New Delhi’s foreign and security policy. India’s geographical location, its relative paucity of energy and other natural resources, its environmental circumstances and the uneven level of its technology are all background variables that have been slow to change. So, also, are the civilizational variables of culture and self-image: the way in which Indians see their own country, and the way in which India is believed to have a special place into the larger world.

Two such attitudinal/cultural factors are closely linked to nuclear decisions and have partnered those decisions at critical historical junctures. The first is the way in which nuclear weapons and nuclear energy, might contribute to India’s domestic strength, especially its economic growth; the second is the way in which Indians see nuclear weapons as helping or hindering India’s ’emergence’ as a great state.

Reborn India
Nuclear technology—and now, by extension—nuclear weapons have long been seen as contributing to an economic and technical base that could transform India from a poor country to a modern, relatively rich state. This theme long predates the Chinese test in 1964, and is at the core of the scientists’ recent arguments in favor of weaponization. Their central proposition is that the technologies underlying nuclear weapons can help make India a great scientific and ‘modern’ power. Even if his views have been adapted (and distorted) by the Hindu right, Nehru led the way in developing this argument. It is gospel within India’s government-supported strategic/scientific enclave, although the newly emerged environmentalists, as well as the remnants of the Gandhian movement, would challenge it.

Jawaharlal Nehru saw nuclear power, in its peaceful capacity, as providing India with the ability to leapfrog many technologies. India could go from dung power to nuclear power in a single step. He proclaimed India’s new dams and power stations as modern ‘temples.’ Nehru, and the Indian government, set out to create one of the finest science training systems in the non-Western world (neglecting primary and secondary education in the process).

Without much of a sense of irony, Indians worship science, particularly nuclear science. This worship of science and the adulation of scientists is widespread among the Indian strategic elite. The Nehruvians see science as salvation, the more rustic BJP-inclined backwaters of the political and security elite agree and argue , as did Nehru, that India was a supremely advanced scientific state when the West and the Islamic world were mired in ignorance. For both groups, the nuclear program only reclaims India’s birthright.

Nehru was strongly opposed to an Indian nuclear weapons program, although he did not foreclose the possibility of the ‘option’ strategy. His closest confidant and advisor, V.K. Krishna Menon, was even more anti-bomb. Menon scorned K.C. Pant’s advocacy of nuclear weapons and in 1965 told me that Pant was reading from a text figuratively and literally prepared by Homi Bhabha (the head of the Indian nuclear program). Nehru and Menon could keep Bhabha and the scientists in check by diverting their energy to the civilian (i.e. ‘peaceful’) program with a bit of fudging on the side. While the full story of the sheltering of the bomb program within the Indian nuclear establishment has yet to be told, a forthcoming book by George Perkovich will provide an initial overview.

However, the civilian nuclear energy program staggered under its own conceptual limitations. India’s badly conceived and d worse-implemented power program was hard-put to compete with cheaper energy sources, and was crippled by restrictions on the transfer of technology from Canada, the US and other states. At this point, beginning about fifteen years ago, support for the weapons program began to draw upon existing support for the rebirth of India through a number of new and seemingly marvelous science and technology programs. This was one reason why India made technology cooperation the central focus in its attempt to develop a new relationship with the United States in 1984-86, and even today technology transfer is singled out as a key demand made of the United States in exchange for future restraint on the weapons program.

The overall strategy for high-technology programs was that they would produce spin-offs that would benefit the development effort. The nuclear program, the space program, and other dual-use technologies were all assumed to be cost-effective when these spin-offs were taken into account. However, when various technologies were denied by others, as in the case of the second US supercomputer, the enhanced effort put into developing an indigenous technology was thought to make India that much stronger, because the country was forced to be self-reliant. The scientific/strategic enclave, and their publicists, boast that technology denial thus helps India. Additionally, these efforts at self-reliance have become important rallying points for nationalist sentiments, as India is portrayed as defying the combined might of the West (and Japan), standing on principle.

Lacking an accurate understanding of how little such advanced technologies actually contribute to development, and the opportunity costs incurred by trying to cobble together advanced systems given India’s poor industrial and technology base, the programs have become totems, and are patriotically supported and defended by a wide variety of scientists, journalists, and politicians. Thus, support for civilian programs, including the defunct power program mutated into support for the nuclear weapons program and academic critics of the civilian nuclear program have been harshly dealt with by the government while critics of the test have been accused of being foreign agents. Ominously, the BJP’s Home Minister (L.K. Advani) has stated that the new ‘threat’ to India comes not from the ‘secularists’ (by which he meant Indians not sympathetic with the BJP’s notion of Hindutva), but from ‘liberals,’ i.e. those few Indians who dared to speak out openly against the tests.

The BJP understood perfectly how nuclear weapons had come to stand for much more than a military device. The tests were gleefully welcomed as evidence of the great accomplishments of Indian culture. From the beginning, a prominent theme surrounding the tests was that they demonstrated how outside powers tried, but failed, to keep these technologies out of Indian hands. The fact that one of the key scientists was a Muslim reinforced the linkage between national integration, national unity, national pride the atom, and science. Ironically, the Hindu-oriented BJP’s greatest public triumph came through an event which was widely seen as an accomplishment of India’s secular identity.

India as a great state
Most Indians, especially those in the Delhi-centered strategic and political community strongly believe that their country is once again destined to become a great state, one that matches the historical and civilizational accomplishments of the Indian people. To varying degrees this view is shared at nearly all points along the Indian political spectrum.

Over the years, there developed a complex linkage between the greatness of India and the nuclear question. Nuclear weapons were first seen as an evil badge worn by Cold War great powers. This position, first and best expressed by Jawaharlal Nehru, concluded that India would demonstrate its global leadership by rising above and attempting to end the global nuclear arms race.

At the other extreme, the militant Hindu nationalists, such as the Jana Sangh (the BJP’s precursor party), and some of the secular nationalists, such as those inspired by Subhas Chandra Bose and Ram Manohar Lohia (George Fernandes’ mentor) favored nuclear weapons because they would demonstrate Indian civilizational superiority through the acquisition of the most destructive and advanced form of military power known to mankind. They assured their followers that because of India’s inherent civilizational greatness that such weapons would only be used for peaceful and defensive purposes, an argument that is prominent in the Government’s White Paper and all recent official statements on the bomb.

For thirty years the compromise between these pro- and anti-nuclear positions was maintained by the inherently ambivalent ‘nuclear option’ policy. The hawks could be assured that work would continue on the bomb, the doves could hope that the problem would go away, or that political progress would make the bomb unnecessary.

In the end both anti-nuclear and pro-nuclear positions have been merged. Although the secularists and modernizers and the BJP come at the nuclear question from two different perspectives—the former began with a faith in the peaceful use of atomic energy, the latter had always emphasized the military use of the atom. The two positions have been synthesized in the writings of several Indian strategic writers, most notably K. Subrahmanyam and the person of George Fernandes, the Minister of Defense in the BJP-led coalition government.

Subrahmanyam is a secularist but spent much of his career trying to prove that Nehru really would have favored nuclear weapons; like many of his generation he respected Nehru’s commitments to a democratic, secular state, but felt that Nehru had been too weak and pliable, and bore some of the responsibility for both the disaster of 1962 and India’s failure to deal decisively with Pakistan (and Kashmir) at an early stage. More recently Subrahmanyam has tried to make the case that Gandhi, also, would have favored nuclear weapons. The formula he and others developed thirty years ago has now become fairly widely accepted: India would acquire nuclear weapons in order to pressure the nuclear ‘haves’ to disarm (a theory reminiscent of the notion that the village in Vietnam had to be destroyed to be saved). Indians could have their nuclear cake and eat it: an Indian nuclear program came to be seen as an instrument of resistance to the blackmail tactics of the nuclear weapons states—and thus entirely justified. Further, if nuclear weapons were evil, then the so-called disarmament plans by the nuclear weapons states (whose hands were dirtied by their use or threat of use) of nuclear weapons) were also evil, and such arrangements as the NPT and even the CTBT could be opposed on moral grounds.

Some Indian advocates of nuclearization have always seen nuclear weapons in terms of realpolitik. In a world based on self-help, nuclear weapons were both a mark of a nation’s greatness and an instrument of power because of their deterrent effect. Such long-standing advocates of weaponization, such as K.C. Pant (who gave his first public speech in 1965 advocating the acquisition of nuclear weapons, and who was Defense Minister at the time of India’s 1974 test) have favored nuclear weapons for military and strategic purposes. While Pant and the BJP leadership speak of the moral, defensive and principled qualities of an Indian weapons program, their primary perspective is that these are devices which bring status, power and military capability to India vis a vis its neighbors and other states, especially the United States The most articulate proponent of this position is the conservative strategist, Bharat Karnad, who has argued that the supporters of ‘minimum deterrence’ are short-sighted, and that India needs a deterrent capability that will be able to reach all countries in the world, including the United States—only then will it be taken seriously.

The argument in favor of a large scale nuclear capability was long and successfully opposed until recent years by some of India’s leading strategists. “What purpose would weaponization serve,” they asked, “if India only became the sixth or seventh nuclear weapon state, with a nuclear capability far weaker than all of its likely rivals except Pakistan.” A number of mainstream India strategists (most prominently retired Gen. V.R. Raghavan and a retired Chief of the Navy Staff, Admiral L. Ramdas, certainly not doves, pointed out after the tests that overt weaponization has done Pakistan more good than India, and has brought Delhi down to Islamabad’s level rather than raising it to Beijing’s. This group, which includes a number of foreign policy specialists associated with the Congress party and Janata Dal, would have preferred a continuation of the option strategy, preferring to delay weaponization until India could be taken seriously, i.e. , when India had already developed an IRBM and perhaps a blue water nuclear capability.

To summarize,
The original moral impetus against nuclear weapons that dominated Indian thinking from 1947 onward has not disappeared, but has been projected upon those states that are regarded as nuclear ‘haves.’ This, in turn, made it possible for Indians to argue that their own acquisition of nuclear weapons was a moral act, in that it was one way in which Delhi could pressure the nuclear weapons states into eliminating nuclear weapons.

The number of Indians who saw nuclear weapons as instruments and symbols of national power has increased gradually over the years. As we shall see, their ranks were swelled by the diplomacy surrounding the extension of the NPT and the passage of the CTBT, which were effectively portrayed as treaties that would forever keep India as a second rate state.

The original faith in nuclear technology as a way in which India could leapfrog intermediate technologies and dramatically improve the lot of the average citizen was appropriated by the nuclear weapons lobby: they have turned the argument of non-proliferationists inside out. Instead of arguing that nuclear weapons were closely linked to nuclear technology, and the latter must be controlled in order to eliminate or reduce the former, they argue that the nuclear weapons option, or actual weaponization, is necessary for India to maintain an independent civilian nuclear program.

Thus, there has been a gradual shift in Indian attitudes towards weaponization over the past thirty years. From widespread hostility a majority of Indians came to believe, by 1990, that because of considerations of both idealism and self interest the weapons option had to be preserved. But a majority of both the strategic elite and the broader public did not believe that the option had to be immediately exercised. Several events in the past six to eight years eroded significantly this long-standing Indian opposition to exercising the option.

Four Medium-Range Variables
While cultural assumptions do not change quickly, it is possible for a state’s economic, political, and strategic environment to alter within a matter of months or years. India’s strategic position seemed (to many Indians ) to have dramatically worsened after 1990; its political system underwent important changes, making the bomb issue politically salient for the first time in decades, and the calculation of the economic price of ‘going nuclear’ seemed, in the minds of many Indians, a rather minor issue. Thus, strategy and politics, and to a lesser extent economic calculations, changed rather quickly from 1988 to 1998, and in such a way as to strengthen markedly the pro-bomb position in the strategic elite and the larger public.

The Strategic Environment: Pakistan, China, the United States
Many observers, especially in India, have stressed the worsening of India’s strategic position as critical in leading to the decision to test. They also argue that this explains the enthusiasm with which the tests were received. However, a review of the strategic situation in the years and months before the decision to test reveal a more complicated situation, one of ebb and flow rather than a sharp deterioration. Indeed, if a disadvantaged security position was the critical factor then India should have tested much earlier than 1998.

India emerged from the 1971 war with Pakistan as the dominant power of South Asia. The nuclear test, three years later, demonstrated Delhi’s potential for nuclear weapons status. However, an unsettled domestic political order, plus an unwillingness to press the advantage over Pakistan, turned India away from the nuclear option and into a period of strategic stagnation. Yet neither China nor Pakistan were standing still, and by 1979 China had put its economic house in order and was actively assisting Pakistan in the latter’s attempt to acquire a nuclear weapon.

Direct Chinese nuclear assistance to Islamabad was paralleled by a revival of the US-Pakistan alliance after the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union on Christmas day, 1979. Washington was suddenly willing to overlook Islamabad’s nuclear program, and the Carter administration reversed its policy of sanctions.

Suddenly India was relegated to a back-bench in South Asia. From a position of supreme dominance in 1971, India had fallen to the position of a strategic (and nuclear) also-ran in 1981, Delhi saw its relative position vis a vis Pakistan or China rapidly deteriorate. The United States, which had moved closer to both of India’s adversaries, appeared to be an additional enemy.

New Delhi attempted to meet this situation by increasing its dependence on Moscow and embarking on the largest arms-buying spree in the Subcontinent’s history. Fully aware of Islamabad’s nuclear weapons program, there is evidence that Delhi contemplated direct action against Kahuta in the mid-1980s, and it is very likely that the Brasstacks crisis was conceived in part to provide cover for an attack on Pakistan before its nuclear program reached fruition. There was also in 1984-87 an attempt to ‘wean’ the Americans away from Pakistan. This was mirrored by an American attempt to wean India away from the USSR and led to a brief conjunction of policies, if not of strategic objectives.

The threat of military action against Pakistan, as epitomized by the Brasstacks crisis, only hastened the Pakistani nuclear program. India’s two other military gambits in 1987-88 also led nowhere: there was a brief inconclusive confrontation with China at Somdurong Cho, and a catastrophic military intervention in Sri Lanka, an operation which came to be regarded by the Indian army as their ‘Vietnam.’

The confrontation with China raised the issue of what response was available to the Indian army should the Chinese threaten to use tactical nuclear weapons in the Himalayas. The story, heard from several military sources, is that the local division and corps commanders, and ultimately the Eastern Corps Commander, all asked what response India would have to the Chinese use of tactical nuclear weapons, or even a nuclear threat—and that there was no specific response from New Delhi.

Thus, even before the fall of the Soviet Union, India’s expectations that it would emerge as South Asia’s truly dominant and unchallenged power went unfulfilled. The final calamity was the 1989 outbreak of insurgency in Kashmir, which, coming after several years of bloody struggle with Sikh and Naga separatists, drove home the lesson that internal security problems had become acute. Hitherto, domestic insurrectionary or separatist groups were active in the far South or the inaccessible Northeast, but Punjab and Kashmir were closer to home, and turned the Indian capitol into one of the most insecure cities in the world.

Not only had the Indian position vis a vis China and Pakistan deteriorated during the 1980s, New Delhi’s relations with the United States never reached a ‘normal’ stage. First, India deeply resented Washington’s renewed support for Pakistan because of the Afghan war, and the American propensity to turn a blind eye to the Pakistani nuclear program (and its Chinese connection). But India was helpless—it had no leverage against Washington, especially since the Soviet Union was fast-fading as a serious power. There were several years when Indians expected that Washington itself would begin its own decline, and the origins of the ‘look east’ policy were an effort to establish India as a significant factor in South East Asia and with Japan (which was widely believed, in India no less than Washington, to be the most likely candidate to emerge as Asia’s greatest state, and to eventually supplant the United States).

This was not a worrisome prospect for India. The core Indian strategic view holds that not only was New Delhi potentially one of the four or five great states of the world, its true emergence would come about through a combination of its own movement from middle-power to great-power status, and the decline of the superpowers that towered over the next tier of states. The Soviet Union had gone, and ‘declinist’ theorists—Japanese, Chinese, British, and American—found a ready audience in India. The United States would soon retreat from Asia in general and South Asia in particular.

This scenario never materialized. The United States not only refused to go into decline, but its logical successor, Japan (from the Indian perspective, a benign and friendly state), tentative and cautious in its post-Cold War diplomacy, showed no interest in a special relationship with New Delhi. India wound up with the worst of all possible worlds: the continuation of a China-Pakistan relationship, a still-meddling America, no likely new Asian partners, the collapse of the Soviet state, and a burgeoning domestic insecurity problem, abetted by a Pakistan that, after 1990, had to be treated as if it was a nuclear weapons state.

India’s security environment seemed worse than it was because of the very high expectations of a strategic breakthrough in the 1970s and again after Rajiv Gandhi’s accession to power. These expectations were sustained through 1992 by the hope that China and the United States would abandon Pakistan. The latter did reduce its commitment to Islamabad after the end of the Afghan war, but the Chinese remained Pakistan’s good friends. The long-held if fantastic Indian view that the United States was guided in its Asian policy by a desire to contain India, and a willingness to use both China and Pakistan for that purpose, remained one of the core assumptions of a good portion of the Indian strategic elite.

A final component of India’s worsening strategic position came from an unlikely direction: the surprisingly ease with which the Non-Proliferation Treaty was permanently extended, and the strong effort made to then develop a treaty to comprehensively ban nuclear explosions. The idea of a CTBT had been introduced originally by India, but it in its new incarnation was seen by many Indians as a way of permanently closing off India’s nuclear option. This belief was strengthened by the many statements issued by American officials to the effect that the US’ goal was to cap, reduce, and then eliminate India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capabilities. It is harder to imagine a formulation that was more threatening to the vast majority of Indian security experts, whose chief goal was to retain the option, not to exercise it or to abandon it. Incredibly, senior American officials continue to use this formulation in public speeches, ensuring that the bomb lobby’s interpretation of a malign American policy will remain dominant for the foreseeable future.

No better example of the consequences of this misguided American strategy can be found than that of George Fernandes, who became Minister of Defense in the BJP-led government that finally decided to exercise the option. Fernandes came out of the liberal trade union movement, and had been vehemently anti-nuclear during his entire political career. He has stated that he remained opposed to the bomb “from Day One till the nineteenth of July, 1996,” when the Lok Sabha began its debate over the CTBT. For Fernandes, who was morally opposed to nuclear weapons, the pressures from the five nuclear ‘haves’ was even more obnoxious. When the BJP leadership informed him of their decision to go ahead with the tests he heartily concurred.

Costing the Bomb
One of the central issues in the first Indian debate on nuclear weapons (which took place immediately after the Chinese test of 1964 and lasting through the end of 1965) was financial cost. A number of economists weighed into the debate, and various politicians argued the merits of a weapons program vs. that of maintaining a strong conventional force, or seeking other strategic remedies, such as an alliance with a friendly nuclear weapon state.

The cost of a nuclear program was less important in the subsequent (1967-68) Indian debate that had been triggered by the question of whether or not to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The dominant concern in 1967-68 was preventing India’s option from being foreclosed by the NPT. By the time of the Indian test (1974), cost was relegated to a minor issue, and the entire bomb issue was swallowed up by domestic politics. India had emerged as the dominant South Asian power after its defeat of Pakistan, and there was no strategic pressure to exercise the option. In the 1970s it was widely thought that India could easily afford a nuclear weapon program, but with Pakistan crushed, and China in domestic disarray (and the United States a distant factor), there was no urgency.

The American-led response to the 1974 Pokhran test revived the economic factor in Indian nuclear calculations. Delhi was surprised at the intensity of the international reaction and shocked by the severity of the sanctions imposed upon the Indian civilian nuclear program. Subsequent American legislation (the NNPA), and the establishment of various international regimes to deny dual-use technology to incipient nuclear-weapons states had reintroduced and transformed the idea of ‘cost.’ Until then, cost was a purely Indian calculation of economic advantage or disadvantage. The burden of investing in a weapons program (when weighed against strategic need) had, for years, led to the conclusion that the decision could be deferred.

The various sanction and technology denial regimes developed after 1974 changed this calculation. Technology denial regimes were seen as not merely targeting India’s military programs, but as punitive and vindictive, directed against the civilian energy program if not the whole Indian economy and the very emergence of India as a modern state. While not much is known about the internal debate, it is possible that the decline of the civilian program (for reasons noted above) strengthened the hand of the weapons scientists. There had been a group of Indian scientists (largely associated with the civilian program) that cautioned against the military program on the grounds that the latter would further damage the civilian effort. If this was the case then American and other restrictions on the Indian civilian nuclear program were a direct stimulus to the weapons program.

By 1998 the ‘cost’ argument had become inverted. Early in India’s nuclear program it was argued that a strong civilian program was necessary to provide the wherewithal for a military program, should one be necessary. By 1995 it was clear that the civilian program was in shambles, and it was heard that the military program had to be sustained in order to keep a critical mass of scientists and engineers together. These arguments went virtually unchallenged in India, since the data and information needed to counter them were either suppressed or secret.

Two other cost-related factors also seemed to suggest that a nuclear weapons program would be more feasible than ten years earlier. India had undergone a severe economic crisis in 1990-91, which led to the introduction of a number of economic reform measures. These were welcomed by many pro-bomb publicists, who (naively) assumed that the Indian economy, now traveling down the road to reform, would generate the resources to develop massive and sophisticated nuclear and missile programs. Second, with every passing year, the actual investment in the weapons infrastructure had slowly grown, and by 1997 India had acquired the technical base to test a variety of systems. These might not have added up to a comprehensive, highly advanced weapons and delivery capability, but the additional cost of a full-fledged weapons program could be kept low (so the advocates of a bomb claimed) as long as India avoided an arms race, and developed a ‘minimum’ deterrent. ‘How much is enough?’ was never really debated in India, and future decisions to build and deploy will be influenced by the balance between strategic requirements and new (as opposed to sunk) costs.

Nuclear Weapons and Indian Politics
The nuclear tests were influenced by India’s domestic politics in at least four ways. First, they are seen by the Delhi-centric elite as strengthening the hand of New Delhi itself against the states. To the degree that it is the center that is responsible for large, secret, and expensive projects that can be justified in the name of national security, the center has more resources at hand, and a continuing claim on revenue.

Further, the aura of crisis and danger that surrounds nuclear weapons demands a powerful political center as well as a correspondingly powerful administrative mechanism to guard them and decide upon their use. This is very appealing to once-powerful regional elites, and the bomb lobby has a disproportionate number of high-caste Hindus, members of religious minorities and others who have been dispossessed from regional politics by the emergence of mass politics. The bomb-lobby is dominated by Indians with a common understanding of the importance of maintaining the political primacy of New Delhi. A nuclearized Delhi would be marginally stronger administratively and politically and could better withstand the pressures from the states for more revenue and less spending on defense.

Second, the nuclear program is one in a series of important symbolic projects that the center has undertaken to develop a sense of Indian nationhood and identity. The content of that nationhood is, when projected through the prism of the bomb, a scientifically adept, multi-cultural people, capable of achieving great things with minimum resources. Originally, these symbolic meanings were attached to the civilian nuclear program, and its leadership often boasted of the way in which Indian talent and innovativeness thrived under the adverse conditions brought about by Western economic sanctions and technology restraint regimes. Tamils, Telugus, Parsis, Punjabis, Bengalis, high-caste and low-caste, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu, all contributed to the effort. The underlying philosophy is that no single Indian state is capable of such a project, and that only by working together can the diverse peoples of India accomplish such great deeds. A.J.P. Kalam has become the central icon of the program not only because of his technological skills, but because they were largely acquired within India and because, although a Muslim, he has a strong interest in broader Indian philosophy and culture. Finally, because the program is entirely civilian, it is a reminder to the military (and the Indian public) that Indian civilians still reign supreme.

Fourth, changes in the political process that made various ‘bomb’ decisions over the years is worth examination, especially the changes in the coherence and stability of the Congress party and its major rivals. As in most countries, India’s bomb-related decisions have been very tightly held, even though they have been intensively debated from 1964 onward. What has changed in the past ten years is the political context in which these decisions have been made. Four prime ministers (Nehru, Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi) were secure in their positions in that they headed Congress party governments that had a clear majority. Except for Indira Gandhi during her first term as Prime Minister none of them faced any severe internal challenge. Most nuclear decisions were made in terms of strategy and cost—none of these governments would face defeat at the polls, or in internal party struggles, because of a nuclear decision.

This does not mean that they were not challenged from within the party on critical foreign policy issues. Nehru, in particular, was pressured into several decisions, including the invasion of Goa and the pursuit of a confrontational policy vis a vis China. At one time an attempt to trade territory with China (and resolve the territorial issue) was blocked by a long-time Congress stalwart (Pandit Pant, K.C. Pant’s father), who threatened to bring the government down if one inch of Indian territory was transferred to the Chinese.

With the advent of weak and coalition governments in the 1990s, a challenge to the government on foreign policy was possible from without as well as within the dominant party. This occurred during Narasimha Rao’s prime ministership. While he was widely respected as a shrewd manager of Indian foreign policy (he had been Indira’s Foreign Minister for a number of years), he was otherwise politically vulnerable, and could have been removed from office on a number of issues. The subsequent Janata-led coalition was even more precarious, and both Deve Gowda and Inder Gujral continued in office only through the tolerance of a very disparate group of coalition partners. None of these were as vehemently pro-bomb as the BJP, but during this period the BJP was picking up new members from Congress and other parties, and some (such as K.C. Pant’s wife, and then K.C. Pant himself) were hawkish on nuclear issues.

To summarize:
India’s strategic environment grew both more complex and dangerous after 1990. with the renewal of the threat of war with Pakistan, Islamabad’s nuclearization, strong evidence of Chinese support for Pakistan (despite the apparent improvement of India-Chinese relations), and the rise of serious domestic insurrections in Punjab, the Northeast, and Kashmir; while objectively India’s security position was manageable, the sense of insecurity grew in New Delhi. This was partly because of an earlier expectation of a more secure post-Cold War world, the decreasing stability of successive Indian governments after 1990, and the emergence of what appeared to be a Western (i.e. American) attempt to eliminate India’s nuclear option via a series of increasingly restrictive treaties.

The financial burden of developing a nuclear weapon was seen as diminished (in view of the major investments made in the nuclear and missile programs over the years); indeed, the failure of the civilian power program led to the inverted argument that the weapons program could provide a means to sustain the infrastructure for an eventually expanded civilian program. Finally, the real (but limited) economic reforms initiated after 1991 seemed to suggest that the money would be there if the option were exercised.

The medium-range political calculations seemed to have made it easier to reach a decision to go nuclear. It was not just that the BJP had come to power (both a Congress and a Janata government were apparently on the edge of ordering tests, and certainly authorized the preparations for subsequent tests), but all political parties from 1990 onward were more vulnerable from within their ranks and from coalition partners, to pressure on a variety of different issues. This, coupled with a larger shift away from opposition to nuclear weapons, per se, and the growth of militant ‘nuclearism’ (the belief that nuclearization could solve a wide range of national, cultural, and strategic problems) created an environment in which the decision to go nuclear was domestically politically acceptable, and perhaps politically essential for those on the Indian right.

Why Now?
These long and medium-term factors provide a frame through which we can view the events of 1998. Clearly, there was widespread support for any decision that could be seen as preserving Indian greatness and its strategic capabilities. The debate over the CTBT had been structured by the dovish Inder Gujral so that India presented itself as a moral authority on strategic and nuclear issues, and was openly defying the West (especially the US) to punish it. As Gujral said in one of his speeches, Indians were proud of their willingness to address and challenge on these great moral issues (especially when India’s own strategic position was affected), and would not mind—it even welcomed—the consequences.

We now turn to a series of events and short-term factors which together formed the end game of the decision to test and move towards a declaration of nuclear weapon status. Less is known about them at the moment, but undoubtedly the full story of the actual decision to proceed with the tests will emerge over the next year or two.

Internal BJP party considerations Immediately after the tests several informed observers noted that ‘domestic politics,’ and the internal politics of the BJP-RSS nexus, were responsible for the decision. Stephen Solarz and others have argued that to meet pressure from within the party (and by extension, the Sangh Parivar—the larger community of Hindu nationalist organizations and groups) the Vajpayee and others had to demonstrate that they were capable of fulfilling at least one of the Party’s major planks. They had yielded to coalition partners on the revocation of Article 356 of the Constitution (which provided Kashmir with a special constitutional status), on the further destruction of mosques built upon temple sites, and on ‘Swadeshi’ economics. Only the bomb was left.

Electoral calculations. Several Indian press reports claim that the decision to test a weapon was made by the first BJP government (in 1996), but not implemented since it failed to achieve a parliamentary majority and quit office. This possible sequence of events was cited by some as indicating the strength of the bureaucracy and its ability to resist a radical decision by a government with less than complete authority.

However, another factor may have been involved, especially if there was a decision to test in 1996. It could be that the BJP leadership felt that they had to test quickly because it would be one of the few major accomplishments they could bring to the voters should there be an election. This was probably the case in 1996, perhaps somewhat less so in 1998 because India had grown election-weary, and there was widespread expectation that the BJP-dominated coalition would hold office for at least a year. The core group that made the decision to test in 1996 and 1998 could have felt that for electoral reasons it would be better to test sooner rather than later.

The Ghauri Test. Pakistan’s test of a medium-range missile has been termed especially provocative. However, this was only one in a series of provocations offered up by each side—and does not quite square up with the Government’s repeated insistence that the tests were carried out primarily because of concern with Beijing, rather than Islamabad. In any case, the decision to go ahead with a test had already been made in Delhi: the Ghauri only confirmed the wisdom of that decision and further weakened the position of any Indian official or citizen who opposed weaponization. Ironically, the Ghauri test may have made it more important for Islamabad to subsequently test a nuclear weapon in order to continue its strategy of one-upping New Delhi.

The Clinton visit and false ‘signals.’ The likely Clinton visit was thought by some Indian strategists as the best opportunity to engage the Americans on issues of real concern to New Delhi. According to some sources, it was thought that getting the test out of the way as soon as possible would provide enough time for India and the US to sort out residual differences and still permit a Clinton visit in 1998. And, some had drawn the conclusion that the United States no longer regarded proliferation as that critical an issue in its dealings with India. A number of American studies, later echoed in official statements, called for a broad-ranging relationship with India, and a de-emphasis on proliferation and formal treaty adherence.

Was this taken (by some Indians) as a sign that the United States had a more nuanced (i.e. tolerant) view of Indian strategic ambitions, and might even welcome an Indian nuclear program as strengthening India’s capability to stand up to China? It should be emphasized that the Indian strategic community is deeply divided as to the origin of the threat as well as the means to meet it, and that the same individuals who held these views could (and usually did) strongly criticize the United States for its strategic insensitivity and hegemonistic inclinations. If American statements sent false signals then this may have had more to do with Indian wishful thinking than any changes in American strategy towards South Asia, which during this period was still in a state of flux.

Summary and Review:
The ‘bomb’ has always been a subject of intense debate in India. The debate has often been one-sided or incomplete because of the poor quality of knowledge about nuclear weapons and strategy. Nevertheless, from 1964 onward the long and medium-term factors discussed above—politics, strategy, cost, national identity—were thoroughly aired in public and within the government.

Over the years pro-bomb arguments grew stronger but never dominated. This is evident in the shift of public opinion (as measured by a long-running series of polls) from strongly opposing nuclear weapons to cautiously favoring them, although a majority of Indians would still favor nuclear abstention if there were no threat from Pakistan or China.

The most important change in the structure of Indian public debate has been to propel the ‘identity’ argument forward as a key issue, and to reduce the importance of economic cost. The rise of a more splintered domestic political order in India is indirectly but importantly linked to foreign policy. On the one hand this splintering makes governments more vulnerable to pressure on highly visible foreign policy issues, on the other it seems to enhance the importance of national consensus and a common approach to foreign policy. The greater the division on other issues, the more important it seems to be to have a common front on security issues, and both the BJP, as well the Indian strategic community has been engaged in an attempt to define the parameters of that consensus. The bomb tests have important strategic consequences, but Indian strategic decisions are also at the mercy of an increasingly tumultuous domestic political system.

Conclusion
What does this analysis have to say about our understanding of regional proliferation dynamics, and what major surprises emerge from this brief note?

Explaining The Decision
Two single-variable models for predicting Indian decisions can be readily dismissed. One has been favored by ‘realist’ analysts the other by elements of the non-proliferation community.

The former argue that states will always go nuclear if vital security interests are threatened; Indian and Pakistani interests have been threatened, hence the tests and the eventual weaponization that will follow. This does not provide an answer to the question as to why India did not go nuclear much earlier when its security situation first began to deteriorate.

Some arms controllers have argued that prestige is a critical variable in the decision to go nuclear. Unlike the realists, who see threats everywhere, they do not grasp why even the most serious security threat would lead a state to develop a weapon that cannot seemingly be used for any rational military purpose. Further, in the South Asian case the argument that states go nuclear because of the prestige factor also fails to persuade, largely because of the evident reluctance—stretching over decades—of many successive Indian governments to test, or to declare India to be a nuclear weapons state without a test. All of these governments have had to deal with a difficult strategic environment under circumstances of economic stringency.

The Indian counterpart to the West’s ‘more bang for a buck’ is New Delhi’s ‘more rumble for a rupee’ and there is a small but growing military literature on the use of tactical nuclear weapons in the Subcontinent. This discussion has been inhibited until now because neither Pakistan nor India had declared themselves to be nuclear weapons states, but we can expect a full-scale discussion of nuclear doctrine to emerge in the next few years; it is highly unlikely that prestige will play much of a role in the discussion, as compared with hard-core strategic, economic, and political considerations.

If single-variable explanations seem weak or limited, it is no less imprudent to aggregate all variables and assume that today’s policies, which might have been the same as yesterday’s, will continue on tomorrow. Like the weather, tomorrow’s weather will not be the same as today’s, even though today’s may be the best single predictor. This is because what happens today is not a factor or variable, it is an outcome.

Some surprises
Our approach has been to disaggregate a large number of factors into their short, medium, and long-term mutability. This suggests that it in the Indian case (and Pakistan’s as well) it will be especially important to track changes over time and remain alert to the appearance of seemingly irrelevant factors, and the reappearance or disappearance of others. In the case of the 1998 tests some old factors (cost) reappeared in a new guise, and some new ones (political instability at the center) were unprecedented. There was also a steady erosion of opposition to nuclear weapons. To my mind, however, there were three significant developments that were systematically underestimated by outsiders (and many Indian analysts).

1) The first was the deterioration in India’s apparent strategic position. To outsiders India looked as prosperous and as secure as before, but for many Indians the loss of its strategic anchors and the prospect of facing a new and unexpected world without a full complement of weapons (when three hostile states had them) demanded more self-confidence than could be expected of a country also undergoing simultaneous economic, political, communications, and cultural revolutions. It remains to be seen whether the bomb will ease the sense of insecurity that pervaded the Indian strategic elite in the mid-1990s. My own view is that it will provide some temporary respite, but without significant progress at home (and a more adept diplomacy abroad), the deeper insecurities that made the bomb decision possible will remain.

2) American policy, no matter how well-meaning, served as an accelerant as far as the nuclear decision was concerned. Washington seemed to be trying to foreclose some important Indian options, opening the way for the proliferation hawks to tests and weaponization. (the options before recent governments have included a test with no weaponization, and the declaration of weaponization without testing, the BJP did both, although it, and the scientific/strategic enclave that was responsible for the technical side of the tests, skillfully misled outsiders and Indians alike as to their intentions).

3) While being a democracy has an impact on Indian foreign policy, weak governments are especially vulnerable. The great stress, in India, on the importance of a bipartisan consensus on foreign policy meant that once earlier governments moved towards a nuclear test by preparing the test site and allowing the design teams to continue their work, then successor governments could claim that their predecessors supported their policies because they had literally prepared the ground. It will be difficult to move the new ‘consensus’ back from this position, to a point where declaration of nuclear weapons status does not include deployment.

4) Finally, we conclude with a theme which has not been discussed in the strategic literature, or in Indian statements immediately after the tests—but which is evident in any reading of the Indian press. It is that India is simultaneously undergoing a variety of domestic changes, some of which are revolutionary in their implications. There is a stalled economic revolution, which began about the time that India’s global strategic position changed (1990), there is a social revolution, epitomized by the emergence of regional middle caste and even low caste political parties, whose fixed agenda is nothing short of social transformation; there is also a cultural revolution underway, led by the BJP, which seeks to redefine and homogenize the meaning of ‘Indian.’ Finally, there is a federal revolution under way in the country, in which the states battle for greater freedom from the center.

Each of these revolutions has important implications for Indian foreign policy: our point here is that together and separately they remain far more important for most Indians than issues such as nuclear weapons or arms control. Strategic and military issues become politically salient only when they are linked to these deeper causes. It has been a major accomplishment of the BJP to once again (as did Nehru) link India’s foreign policy with its larger civilizational aspirations. Both Nehru, his daughter, and the BJP saw this as a way of strengthening their hand at home. This suggests that in the long run purely strategic considerations will eventually be displaced, or supplanted, by considerations of economics and politics—hardly a surprising conclusion for a democracy. The BJP will not win the next election because of the bomb, it may do marginally better (or worse) depending on how the nuclear issue is linked to the concerns of India’s voters. Only a few of those voters are concerned about foreign policy issues, many more are concerned about economic issues, caste and ethnic conflict, growing social violence, and loosening the heavy hand of New Delhi.

Get daily updates from Brookings