A jargon-conquering guide for those who want to understand why South Asia went nuclear, and why it should not have.
(South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament by Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik (Oxford University Press))
This is a remarkable book for several reasons. It pulls together into a coherent and persuasive whole everything you wanted to understand in nuclear politics—whether it be CTBT, Recessed Deterrence, Second-strike Capability and No First Use (versus No First Strike), or Nuclear Weapon Free Zones (NWFZs), De-alert, the NPT, evolving security relations between and among Pakistan, China, the US and India, and much more. After a couple of careful readings (it takes at least that, given the book’s rigour and attention to detail), you begin to understand how South Asia got into this awful mess (from abstinence to ambiguity to enhanced insecurity), at what cost (not just to our economies but to our values), and at what mutual peril.
Since Kargil, which, mind you, is the only large-scale conventional engagement ever to have taken place between two nuclear states, the “short fuse” of the title has grown shorter. The seeming casualness with which our leaders have been exchanging nuclear threats is misleading—they are actually indulging in the classic deterrence dynamic of leaving the other side in “no doubt”. The book shows how unreliable this dynamic is, how prone to misreading are the signals, quite apart from the constant danger of accidents. (One nugget is a box item titled “Ramshackle Deterrence?”.)
The reminder that time is running out is particularly important after the Clinton visit of March 2000, which has had the effect of spawning further complacency in India on the dangers of nuclear war, helped along by the Indian president’s reprimand to Clinton that the Subcontinent is not “the most dangerous place in the world”. The Americans clearly disagree, and quite rightly so. We have been lucky in the first 50 years of the nuclear age that there were no further nuclear tragedies after Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Bidwai and Vanaik discuss the many close shaves). The odds may be against South Asia that this luck will hold, given the volatility, emotionalism, and frequent brinkmanship of the India-Pakistan face-off, the physical proximity of the military and population centres of the two countries, lack of experience in managing the new nuclear relationship, and the current unwillingness of India to even talk to Pakistan. The danger will grow every day as the two countries weaponise and deploy.
If the movement for nuclear sanity is to grow in the Subcontinent, it is important that this sense of time running out is kept alive in the public consciousness. This book should play an invaluable part in doing so. It is written by two scholar-activistjournalists, who marry careful research and a comprehensive understanding of the vast and complicated subject as scholars, with the controlled moral outrage of the activist. All this is coupled with the ability to write readably, unlike some of the jargon-ridden, self-serving, tub-thumping books that have appeared recently by the so-called “strategic experts” of the Realist School. Although most of the discussion is about India, because, as they demonstrate, Pakistan’s role has been essentially reactive, the! book will be of widespread interest on both sides of the border. Also, by adding a voice from the South to the case for global disarmament, South Asia on a Short Fuse will interest participants in the disarmament move ment worldwide, and students of in’ ternational relations everywhere. Unusual for a book from India, it is un-selfconscious in its use of ethical arguments.
Bidwai and Vanaik trace the roots of India’s shift from ambiguity to open nuclearism—a shift brought forth by domestic factors, most importantly the emergence of the belligerent, exclusive nationalism of the Sangh Combine. The Sangh was stepping into the vacuum created by the frustrations of an elite class disappointed by India’s failure to be come a great Asian power and the inability to take its ‘natural’ place at the high table of nations. Some foreign analysts have placed exaggerated credence on the non-existent Chinese threat, and on India’s reactions to the “hypocrisy” of the nuclear weapon states (NWSs). As the authors state, when India went openly nuclear, these hypocrisies had already started to operate towards the prospects of global nuclear disarmament.
While the NWSs need to be constantly needled to get them to move faster on global disarmament (as the group of seven countries called the New Agenda Coalition recently did at the NPT review conference—the club India and Pakistan should have joined rather than the nuclear club, which they have joined as third-class members), this reviewer has always been struck by the Indian elite’s uncaring attitude towards the lack of equality in matters other than the ‘sovereign right’ to possess nuclear weapons (totally obsolete though they are as a ‘currency of power’). It certainly does not bother about the ‘great’ country’s terrible record in infant mortality, or good clean government, or even in the Olympics.
The proximate causes for the Indian tests were the pressures imposed by the nuclear-scientific community, or the “scientocrats”, seeking to maintain their prestige in the face of a dismal record on the peaceful use of nuclear energy. They were goaded along by the consolidation, over the last decade, of an unofficial lobby of hardline strategic hawks (including some nicely placed in the media). And their most important ally was the logic of India’s position in the comprehensive test ban treaty debate between 1994 and 1996: if the CTBT was a trap, what was the point of incurring international opprobrium and still not testing after avoiding the trap? Moreover, such was the public acclaim (much of it manipulated) of the government’s stand on the CTBT, that it had made it much easier for any future government to test. As the authors point out, the “very terms of the Indian debate on the CTBT were so shameful, dishonest and deceitful that this was even more dangerous than the Indian rejection of the Treaty itself”. They devote a careful appendix to the self-seeking sanctimony and absurdities within the Indian critique, and it is surprising that more commentators did not pick these up at the time. It is often said of the Chinese that they speak with one voice in the international arena. Democracies like India are no better on foreign policy issues, and the press indulged in “pack journalism” at its worst.
Bidwai and Vanaik are quite correct in emphasising the costs of going nuclear—to the fabric of society, and to the economy, especially if India follows through on its draft nuclear doctrine (released after publication of this book), which calls for triadic deployment (i.e. including submarines), “space-based assets”, and excludes nothing in principle, including a second-strike capability against large NWSs such as the US. However, it turns out that the authors were wrong about some of the other expected costs—such as India’s expected isolation, the internationalisation of Kashmir (they unequivocally and quite rightly support international mediation), and the impact on India’s prospects for a seat on the Security Council (France has now joined Russia in supporting New Delhi’s stake, and London has conceded that New Delhi “has a case”). The authors, of course, did not anticipate Kargil, or the hijacking of IC 814, or Pakistan’s overt militancy, all of which contributed to a shift in international public opinion, which has worked against the expected isolation of India (and perhaps exacerbated Pakistan’s situation).
Required: mass movement
The authors point out that the tests have not seriously shaken the skewed international nuclear order, which is still ‘non-proliferation’ rather than ‘disarmament’ oriented, centred as it is on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That order cannot absorb 10 or 20 new entrants, but it can accommodate the new reality of India and Pakistan (and a few more) becoming de facto nuclear states. Indeed, if the ongoing negotiations with the US acting on behalf of the P-5 lead to some sort of compromise with India and Pakistan, and take them in at the margins of the world nuclear order while conceding the legitimacy of their ‘minimum credible’ deterrents, this would freeze and extend the order rather than radically alter it. This, because the NWSs are themselves compromised by their obvious reluctance to give up nuclear weapons and resulting rationalisations. Thus, a major opportunity to move forward on disarmament would be lost.
What, then, is the way forward? Globally, the authors discuss the efforts by international NGOs and a select group of countries through the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, and elsewhere, to put much stronger teeth into the Article VI the only legal obligation currently on the NWSs to disarm. There are also proposals to call for an amendment conference on the NPT, for which only one-third of the membership is required, although even this has not been forthcoming. Unless there are sharp shifts in current trends in Europe, the authors do not expect the re-emergence of mass disarmament movements in the First World for some time to come.
However, as the likelihood of nuclear conflict breaking out in South Asia grows with open deployment, especially of nuclear-tipped missiles on the border, the necessary (although not sufficient) condition for the emergence of such mass movements could emerge here in the Subcontinent. Presently, such movements in the region are molecular, urban-based and lacking in policy-forming influence. The authors, as activists, are indeed engaged in the task of setting up a national network of resistance and struggle through MIND (the Movement of Indians for Nuclear Disarmament), which is to hold its first national convention in November. As a first step, the conference may call for a freeze on India’s nuclear development—non-assembly, no ‘mating’ of weapons with delivery vehicles, no induction, no deployment, no further testing and development, etc.
Dim as they may seem for the near future, the prospects for denuclearisation in South Asia may in fact be better than elsewhere; the struggle for a South Asian NWFZ, although more difficult than it was before May 1998, retains relevance and feasibility. As the authors note, of all the NWSs thus far, Pakistan was the most reluctant to acquire nuclear status, and the most worried about the sacrifices entailed in maintaining it. Also, Pakistan is the nuclear weapons state still most willing to give it up if just one other NWS—India—were to do the same, although there is a lobby in Islamabad that sees nuclear weapons as a hedge to compensate for its conventional inferiority vis-à-vis India.
India would probably go for a freeze if and when it realises that the effort to build a credible second-strike capability against China will take much longer and cost much more than anticipated, especially if diplomacy succeeds in restoring the previously existing relationship with Beijing (the ongoing visit by the Indian president to Beijing holding out just such a hope). The prospects for renunciation also could grow stronger as unease about accidents and miscalculations in the face-off with Pakistan develops as deployment proceeds, and as the economic costs start mounting. (India’s fiscal crisis does not allow the burden of another 0.5 to 1 percent of GDP sacrificed to the defence budget.) Lastly, international public anger could build up against both countries, for moving in the opposite direction while the rest of the world is engaged in reducing its nuclear arsenal.
While a no-first-use commitment by India is better than nothing, the authors do not set much in store by it, pointing out that in the heat of a crisis, in a situation of ‘use them or lose them’, immediate military considerations are likely to prevail over ‘noble’ peacetime pledges. Besides, having already reversed its nuclear policy, India has a credibility problem. Measures of de-alerting, on the other hand, can mean a pledge of no-first-use verifiable in practical terms, quite apart from lessening the likelihood of nuclear outbreaks by accident or miscalculation. They entail removing warheads from delivery vehicles, as well as disabling (while not fully destroying) the warheads themselves, thereby buying valuable time, of particular importance in a Subcontinent where it takes missiles no more than a few minutes to hit their targets.
Those who would commit themselves to nuclear disarmament movements in India and Pakistan, and indeed in all South Asia, have a huge task cut out for them. Fortunately, there is now this book to provide them with invaluable guidance.