The Collapse of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government barely 13 months after coming to power has sent an unambiguous message to India’s politicians: ultranationalism, hawkishness on matters of security, and nuclear and missile muscle-flexing can hardly guarantee political survival.
The BJP has long been identified as the only political party in India that is a strong, unconditional votary of nuclear weapons and missiles. It has demanded a nuclear bomb for India since 1951—when India’s security environment was qualitatively better than at any time in the 1980s or 1990s and fully 13 years before China crossed the nuclear threshold. One of its first decisions upon coming to power in March last year was to conduct a nuclear test, a decision made even before it had won a confidence vote in Parliament by a razor-thin margin made possible by abstentions.
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee did not even share the decision to test with his cabinet, although the Bjp’s ideological mentor and organisational master, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, was privy to it. Even Defence Minister George Fernandes was not told about it till a few hours before the 11 May 1998 tests.
The BJP had thought that nuclearisation would produce a popularity wave in its favour — a delusion strengthened by the selective, exaggerated pictures of jubiliatory scenes among some of its hardcore supporters immediately after the tests. The opposite happened, especially after Pakistan’s own tests deflated the jingoistic claim that India’s nuclearisation was a great scientific-technological achievement unique to the Third World.
By July, more than two-thirds of Indians polled in relatively systematic opinion surveys were saying that they were opposed to the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Most non-BjP politicians speaking in Parliament criticised the diversion of resources and distortion of social priorities that accompanied nuclearisation. And in November 1998, voters in three important Hindi-speaking states delivered a stunning verdict against the BJP in legislative elections in which the party deliberately had made the tests a major campaign issue.
The tide of public opinion turned against the ruling coalition’s nuclear policies for three main reasons. First, nuclearisation had lowered, rather than heightened India’s stature in the world, attracting it flak not just from the Great Powers, but also from the Global South, particularly from within the neighbourhood. The sanctions, reprimands from multilateral fora, and negative reactions that followed, underscored India’s isolation.
Secondly, as the Bomb’s social and economic costs unfolded, official claims sounded increasingly hollow. The tests took place amidst an explosion of jingoism, male-supremacist, aggressive nationalism, and bellicosity towards India’s neighbours. This vitiated the social climate, promoting secrecy, intolerance and suppression of dissent, and legitimising insensate violence.
The BjP’s ideological brotherhood saw nuclearisation as the assertion of India’s ‘Hindu manhood’. But in economic terms, even a small nuclear weapons programme is enormously costly —of the order of USD 10 to 15 billion — raising the country’s already bloated military budget annually by more than 20 percent. And even this gives India only a fairly rudimentary nuclear arsenal, about a fifth the size of China’s.
Thirdly, nuclear weapons involve a Faustian bargain: they are liable to reduce, not enhance, security. India has entered into an arms race not just with Pakistan, lowering mutual security, but also with China, which has a 30-year nuclear and missile lead, and an economy three times India’s. To any observor, this is strategically disastrous and economically ruinous.
In the specific situation of the Subcontinent, with its history of three India-Pakistan wars, intense mutual suspicion, hostility and strategic miscalculation, nuclear weapons are extremely destabilising. There is little strategic distance between India and Pakistan, with missile flight-time to many target points as low as three to five minutes. The possibility of accidental, unintended or unauthorised use of nuclear weapons, always real — as revealed hundreds of times during the Cold War —is particularly stark in the India-Pakistan case. For many Indians and Pakistanis, nuclear weapons are now a felt danger, not abstract, distant entities.
Adverse public opinion on nuclear weapons is one factor that restrained the Indian government from undertaking a new round of tests although it was under pressure from political hawks and hardline scientists in the nuclear and defence establishments. This group’s compulsion was the nagging knowledge that their claims of a hydrogen bomb test and high yields of fission weapons were being widely questioned by independent-minded scientists at home and abroad. In the end, it was this hostile public mood that impelled Vajpayee to take the bus to Lahore on 20 February and hold a conciliatory summit with Nawaz Sharif.
However, public opinion alone is no guarantee that India’s policy-makers will radically alter their stance with a change in government. If a Congress-led government comes to power after the elections, it is likely to go slow on nuclear weapons development; but at the same time, it might be reluctant, given past pronouncements of some Congress leaders on that issue, to sign the comprehensive test ban treaty (CTBT).
Whatever happens, it is no small gain that Indian politicians have realised that hawkishness does not guarantee votes. The generally critical reaction of the Opposition to the 11 April Agni missile test is a healthy sign. As is the emergence of a significant nuclear disarmament and peace movement in India. If this grows, South Asia’s denuclearisation — and the prospect of global nuclear disarmament- will not be as remote as it might seem.