Explosion of Nuclear Myths

India’s five nuclear blasts have led to a proliferation of hype and myths. Fantastic gains, say some. Terrible costs, say others. Don’t believe either.

Myth No 1: The nuclear tests make India a full member of the nuclear club. Not so. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) recognises only five countries as nuclear-weapon states, and refuses to recognise others whether or not they explode a bomb. The same five countries also constitute the London Club of nuclear suppliers. The club’s doors were not opened to India after its 1974 explosion, and stay barred after its 1998 explosions. Far from joining the club, India is currently being treated as a pariah. Even if, as part of a deal for lifting economic sanctions, India signs the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, it will not be admitted to the club.

Myth No. 2: By testing a missile warhead and hydrogen bomb, India’s security has increased. Not true (as I have argued in a separate column elsewhere in this newspaper). India already had nuclear deterrent capacity from 1974 onwards. The new tests prove India can flatten Pakistani cities five times over instead of twice over. That makes no strategic difference; a foe can be killed only once. Remember nobody can win a nuclear war; both sides lose. All we have achieved is the ability to increase mutual losses.

Myth No. 3: The US is a superpower that controls global finance. This old left-wing fantasy has already been proved untrue in this case. The US claims the sanctions will impose a cost of $ 21 billion on India, but this is highly exaggerated. The US has stopped credits and guarantees to India, but these will be available from other countries (even to American companies), though the cost will certainly go up. The US by itself cannot block loans from the World Bank or Asian Development Bank: For that it needs a united front with other donors, something it has failed to achieve. Britain, France and Russia have refused to impose sanctions.

This gives Indian diplomats leeway to reduce the impact and duration of sanctions. We must to go to every American multinational and say ‘Look, these stupid sanctions mean that the Brits and French will steal all the contracts and projects you were about to get. For heaven’s sake, lobby the US Administration and Congress to resolve the issue before all the contracts get out of reach.’ And our diplomats must tell all British, French and German businessmen, ‘Here is your chance to grab all those contracts and projects that the stupid Americans have denied themselves. So don’t even think of sanctions, grab all you can before the Yanks come to their senses.’ There is no US hegemony in world capitalism. India can play the game of divide and rule as well as anybody else.

Myth No 4: This is the opposite of myth No 3, and argues that India need not worry at all about economic sanctions since the West desperately needs the Indian market. This is a delusion of grandeur. Do not underestimate foreign dismay over India’s destroying the illusion that the world would not see any more nuclear tests. Do not underestimate the determination of many US legislators to ensure that India pays such a high penalty that all other non-nuclear countries will be deterred from following India’s path. With skilful diplomacy, we can limit the cost of sanctions, but do not for a minute think the cost will be negligible. We must avoid abrasive or insensitive diplomacy: We must give the US a fig-leaf to hide a change of policy. India’s economic potential alone will not ensure the end of sanctions. The BJP has so far played to the deshi gallery: It now needs to pay to the videshi gallery too.

Myth No 5: India has a principled objection to the nuclear apartheid implicit in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows five powers to have nuclear arsenals but not others. In fact India’s objection is opportunist, not principled. In the old days of apartheid in South Africa, the whites recognised the need to deal with the Japanese even though these were non-white, and solved the problem by giving the Japanese the status of ‘honorary whites.’ The same principle applies in the case of nuclear apartheid. If the big five give India the status of an honorary white and admit it to the club, India will happily practise nuclear apartheid against everybody else, even while mouthing the rhetoric of equal treatment. Our real but unstated position is that, as full-blooded Aryans, it is outrageous for us to be kept out of a white man’s club.

Myth No 6: The BJP is now bound to win the next election. History tells us otherwise. India experienced similar euphoria after its 1974 nuclear explosion, but Indira Gandhi lost the next election because other issues soon obscured the explosion. Similarly, the United front’s decision to opt out of CTBT created great euphoria in 1997, yet the UF was hammered in the next election. Euphoria is limited to a small urban group in a country where 73 per cent of voters are rural and have never heard of NPT or CTBT. Public memory in India is notoriously short, and today’s big news gets overtaken by new events quickly.

Myth No 7: Now that India has proved it is a nuclear power, the world will give us more respect. Not so. Similar things were said in 1974, but the world could see that India remained a poor country trailing far behind Asian neighbours that were non-nuclear. North Korea established nuclear capacity but got no respect because of economic weakness. If India wants to be respected it has to become economically strong, and that requires much more than nuclear muscle.

To sum up, let us disregard talk of either great benefits or great costs. The strategic gains are illusory. There are economic costs, but these can be minimised by skilful diplomacy. We need to settle the matter (signing CTBT in return for the lifting of sanctions) within six months. If so, the Clinton visit will go ahead, and we can use the occasion to join the CTBT. That will enable him to claim he has won over India, and will enable us to claim we have won over Clinton.

If we can settle the matter in six months, the impact of sanctions will be only marginal. If, however, the issue drags on unresolved for a year, the economic costs will become substantial. And if the matter drags on for two years, India could be in serious economic trouble. So let us be neither panicky nor cocksure. Let us focus instead on clearheaded diplomacy.

Above all, let us not confuse nuclear deterrence (which is essential) with nuclear attack capacity (which is a delusion of grandeur). Let us not waste huge money on trying to build costly command and control systems with multiple warheads and hydrogen bombs. Let us have a modest arsenal enough for deterrence, no more. Let us develop Agni so that this limited arsenal can hit more locations. And let us cut the strength of our armed forces by 200, 000 in view of our deterrent capacity. Such cuts will yield more than enough savings to finance a policy based on deterrence. On the other hand no amount of cuts can finance the gargantuan sums needed for attack capacity. That it a bottomless pit we must avoid.

What do you think?