India’s Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation, by George Perkovich. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1999, 468 pp.
Thomas W. Simons, Jr.
Since India and then Pakistan exploded nuclear devices in May 1998, the world has been grappling with the consequences. In this hefty history of Indian nuclear policy from its origins until the end of 1998, George Perkovich has provided an indispensable guide for those trying to sort out the ramifications of the nuclear tests. Perkovich, one of our most distinguished scholars of South Asian security issues and their global impact, and currently director of the W. Alton Jones Foundation’s Secure World Program, demonstrates that the primary factors bearing on India’s nuclear policy today have been present from the very creation of its nuclear program shortly after the country’s independence in 1947.
Two interrelated factors have favored nuclear weapons. First has been the driving impulse among many in India’s elites to take actions aimed at transcending the country’s colonial past. Nuclear science and nuclear weapons have been seen as essential in gaining India the respect and standing in international life that it feels it deserves because of its size and ancient civilization. These elites consider the international nuclear nonproliferation regime as “nuclear apartheid,” structured to keep India (and other non-Caucasian countries) out and down. Perkovich shows that it is this “political narrative” and not a “security-first narrative” that has dominated India’s discourse with itself and the world on nuclear issues. To be sure, Indian hawks have cited the security threat from China and, less frequently, from Pakistan as reasons to go forward. But Perkovich richly documents his contrary view that elite hunger for status and recognition have counted for much more.
The chief fomenters of this impulse have been an interconnected band of scientists in government and thinkers and publicists in think tanks and in the media who have pushed hard for nuclear weapons. Perkovich calls this group the “strategic enclave” (a term borrowed from the Indian scholar Itty Abraham). The members of this enclave have been cavalier about the military (which every Indian government has kept isolated from nuclear matters), about cost, and about Pakistan’s scientific and nuclear potential. They have also been extraordinarily prickly about status and pugnacious toward the United States. India’s nuclear explosions of May 1974 and May 1998 were triumphs for them.
The probomb crowd, however, has rarely been ascendant, because, Perkovich argues, four powerful antibomb factors have almost constantly been in play. The most powerful is what he calls “the normative interest in positioning India as morally superior to the international system’s major powers who possess and threaten to use nuclear weapons.” Like the hunger for status, this factor derives from India’s colonial past, specifically the Gandhian/Nehruvian ideology that so influenced the freedom struggle. Three other factors have reinforced it: 1) reluctance to involve the military and hence to build a bomb that the military would have to help deploy; 2) economic constraints (because India is poor, there has always been a conflict between development and security needs); and 3) the high political and economic costs that India might suffer in the international community. India’s Nuclear Bomb is essentially the story of how the two probomb and four antibomb factors weighed against each other over time to produce Indian policy.
India’s nuclear research and energy program, with its imbedded weapons option, was launched soon after independence. But while its sponsor Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was alive, the weight of the Gandhian inheritance and the need to develop economically kept India hostile to nuclear weapons. In 1964, however, Nehru died, and China tested a nuclear bomb, ushering in, by Perkovich’s account, a confusing but fascinating two years. Between 1964 and 1966, the United States three times considered supplying India with nuclear weapons to counter China. And Homi Bhabha, the scientist father of the Indian nuclear program, asked the United States for nuclear help. But pronuclear sentiment reversed itself quickly: By the end of the 1960s, the United States had firmly embarked on a nonproliferation path. And India, though it now had undeclared nuclear weapons capability (with its perceived deterrent advantages) and refused to sign the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), could still keep the moral high ground by forgoing the production of actual weapons.
Perkovich argues that this “recessed deterrence” provided India with a satisfactory long-term policy compromise for dealing with its competing needs. Consequently, he believes that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s 1974 authorization of a “peaceful nuclear explosion” was an aberration. Aberration or not, it was certainly a failure by any criterion except postcolonial pride: The political bounce soon faded, sanctions were costly, China appeared not to notice, and Pakistan continued to move ahead with its own weapons program.
Contrary to expectations, successive Indian prime ministers then adhered to the “nuclear option” strategy for another generation, although it was always under pressure. By 1980, India and Pakistan could both assemble and deliver a limited number of nuclear weapons quickly, and thus their intermittent crises–in 1983, 1986, and 1990–now had nuclear weapons at the top of the escalation ladder. Perkovich reveals that Mrs. Gandhi authorized and then canceled another test in 1982 or 1983, and that in 1986 her son and successor Rajiv considered and then rejected an attack on Pakistan’s nuclear facilities. In every crisis, however, the two countries drew back (as they would again in1999). And both stayed “recessed” even after each lost its main foreign support–Pakistan with the cancellation of U.S. aid in 1990 and India with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Both countries were now more on their own than ever before, more driven by domestic impulses; and yet, for another seven years, the “nuclear option” held.
Nuclear era begins
Why then did it cease to hold in 1998? After all, as Perkovich demonstrates, so little had changed. To be sure, postcolonial resentment was rekindled by indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995 and negotiation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1997. Many Indians saw these moves as reaffirmations of nuclear apartheid, and this built new pressures for weapons testing. P. V. Narasimha Rao’s abortive test authorization in 1995 is well known, but Perkovich reveals that during his first 12-day tenure as Prime Minister in 1996, A. B. Vajpayee also ordered tests and then rescinded the orders. But the countervailing pressures were also still in force. Neither China nor Pakistan were rattling sabers at India. The United States was obliquely signaling that it knew the South Asian weapons and missile programs were facts of life for a long time to come. Further, there were new glimmerings of Indian attraction to the Chinese path to power: giving primacy to economic development while stabilizing relations with one’s closest neighbors.
Perkovich argues that “a handful of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders made the decision to test.” The decision was made shortly after the party came to power in March 1998 and “without consulting other political parties . . . and without conducting a previously advertised strategic defense review.” Although the Chinese “threat” and a Pakistani missile test on April 6 were later cited as motives for the tests, “if strategic considerations had been paramount, the decision could have awaited the defense strategy review and still enabled the scientists to act prior to the anticipated entry into force of the [CTBT] in late 1999.” Domestic politics and postcolonial phobia were what really counted. The United States was not told beforehand, Perkovich writes, because “Indian leaders intended the tests to display India’s autonomy and security but were somehow afraid that they would not be able to withstand U.S. pressure had Washington been warned. This combination of defiant assertiveness and diffident timidity may have been a price paid for the colonial experience.” He adds, “Given the political interests of the BJP and the drive of the weaponeers, Washington probably could not have prevented India from testing in 1998.”
As in 1974, Perkovich shows, the 1998 tests failed to meet any of India’s objectives beyond showing prowess. The political boost to the BJP faded quickly. Although not crippling, sanctions hurt. India lost international status; the months after the tests echoed with the sound of slamming doors. And by responding with its own tests, “Pakistan . . . practically matched India in effective nuclear power and recast India not as the preeminent South Asian state but as part of an unstable Indo-Pak dyad whose conflict over Kashmir and potential nuclear and missile competition must be managed above all else.” Finally, the tests brought the United States back into South Asia as the necessary negotiating partner for both India and Pakistan as they grope their ways toward the “minimum deterrence” they profess to seek.
Perkovich is a fine historian, but inside a political scientist and a policy advisor are struggling to get out, and in the book’s conclusion, they do. In political science, structural realists argue that states act mainly to ward off external threats; Perkovich, by contrast, stresses that in India, domestic factors have been at least as important. Much nonproliferation theory holds that removing the original causes will suffice to roll proliferation back; Perkovich argues that acquiring nuclear weapons capability changes domestic political balances and that democracy, as in India’s case, “appears to obstruct efforts to control and eliminate nuclear weapons once they have been acquired.” Perkovich believes that both democracy and “unproliferation” should be promoted, and he argues that “averting the potential clash between [them] requires clearer commitments to eliminating nuclear weapons from all states.”
Perkovich’s operating assumption is that the South Asian tests have changed much and that the damage to the nonproliferation regime can be repaired only by drastic action. He may be right, but we will never know. In today’s world “clearer commitments to eliminating nuclear weapons” are not in the cards. Hence, the proposition that is more likely to be tested is that the South Asian tests have in fact changed little, as his own account suggests. If that is the case, what is required to restabilize the security situation is a series of negotiated steps that would allow India to return to something like the balance among competing factors that has prevailed throughout most of its history. That is precisely what the United States is seeking in its negotiations with India and Pakistan.
Recessed deterrence is, of course, gone forever, but all other historical factors remain in play. The factors that will surely shape India’s (and hence Pakistan’s) minimum deterrence are still the same. To be sure, the strategic enclave will keep trying to tweak postcolonial hangover into national migraine. But there will still be resistance to a major role for the Indian military; lingering moral distaste for nuclear weapons; international pressure not to go further; and even some awareness that “to achieve greatness India must integrate itself into the international political economy” with its U.S. gatekeeper. And if it can be suitably defined, minimum deterrence can resemble recessed deterrence like a brother, as the keeper of the middle ground where Indian national interests meet and lie down together. That middle ground is also where the postcolonial pathologies that have helped drive the program can expire at last. Then India can take her rightful place as a strong, responsible modern power in the world community.
Thomas W. Simons, Jr., U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan from January 1996 to August 1998, is consulting professor of history at Stanford University and distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.