Monday, 29 April 2019

Foreign Affairs Journal, Apr-Jun 2010
Priyanjali Malik, India’s Nuclear Debate: Exceptionalism and the Bomb, New Delhi: Routledge, 2010, ISBN 978-0-415-56312-3, pp. 344, Rs. 795/-

The book is a befitting addition in the series War and International Politics in South Asia, following earlier books by Rajesh Rajagopalan and Harsh V Pant. The book is based on the author’s DPhil thesis at Oxford University, for which she was awarded the British International Studies Association (BISA) Founder’s Day Prize for the best thesis in 2007-08.

The book examines the domestic debates in India over the nuclear option through the Nineties. However, it takes Its argument is that pressures on the non-proliferation front on account of CTBT negotiations and NPT extension were seen as infringement of New Delhi’s right to make its sovereign decisions on how best to manage its security. It explains how the original opinion in favour of promotion of nuclear disarmament and keeping the ‘option’ ‘open’, turned towards support of nuclearisation with the Shakti tests in May 1998.

The author introduces the concept of ‘attentive public’. To her in this group are those in India who have traditionally concerned themselves with foreign policy issues. This group of the urban middle and upper classes comprises ‘highly educated individuals, fluent in English and who use the language to cut across regional and cultural divisions within the country, form(ing) an urban elite whose political compass points to New Delhi’. While a tiny minority, it is nevertheless influential. The study charts the growing interest of this group in nuclear policy ‘to draw out the manner in which New Delhi’s independence of action was perceived to be linked to India’s sovereignty, its global and regional position and the ongoing nationalist project of defining India…’.

The book charts the interaction between two dyads, defined by the author as ‘two competing sets of priorities faced by the national government’. The first is development and security. The second is of identity of ‘India’ based on the tension between the ‘India’ of Gandhi and Nehru and a more ‘normal’ state comfortable with power and military capabilities. The debate in the attentive public was about breaking out of the ‘managed group’ by throwing off self imposed shackles of nuclear restraint. This would involve a break with Indian ‘exceptionalism’ that had prompted its anti nuclear stance. Changes resulting from the end of the Cold War contributed to the salience of security arguments in favour of weaponisation. Though in the course of the debate India shed some Nehruvian ideas, ambivalence continues to attend its approach to nuclear weapons, best evident from the first paragraph in the draft nuclear doctrine talking, contrary to expectations of such a document, of disarmament.

The first chapter walks the reader through the Nehru years and how the Nehruvian legacy of preserving decision space was preserved by successive prime ministers till the penultimate decade of last century. In the Nehru years, the balance between security and development in the national project was forged. India sought security and international recognition through exceptionalism, by leading the critique of the Cold War world order even as it took advantage of it. Events in the period beginning with the nuclear tests by China in the Lop Nor drove the nuclear debate, in particular the advent of the NPT regime and India’s peaceful nuclear experiment. In the eighties India attempted to build up its nuclear and missile capability under a watchful technology restraint regime. In the period the attentive public was only episodically interested in defence since the nuclear issue did not acquire the overtones of a ‘political’ question, as it did in the nineties. The decision space was left to the government and its experts. With liberalisation, the media revolution and the increased visibility of the scientific establishment in the next decade things were to change.

The second chapter discusses the nuclear debate in the Nineties. The international context was framed by the end of the Cold War and internally by economic liberalisation, advent of the coalition era in politics and the social fissures that developed along the caste and religion faultlines. The country was driven onto the defensive by a draw down in defence spending and by allegations on its human rights record. Nuclear policy was forced to the fore amidst all this by a western led interest in rolling back India’s nuclear ‘option’. Discussions on nuclear issues continued desultorily between ‘doves’, ‘hawks’ and ‘owls’ till the mid Nineties. The indefinite extention of the NPT in 1995 and the impetus imparted to CTBT negotiations in the years led to a certain urgency in the debate. Yet it did not venture beyond whether to test to dwelling on the place of nuclear weapons in India’s development and security dyad. The tests of May 1998 closed the debate regarding testing. However, the issue that mattered to attentive India was less the security aspect of nuclearisation but that the tests demonstrated that India mattered in the international community.

Chapters three and four dwell in greater detail on the change and the manner it was worked between the first and second half of the decade respectively. Chapter five brings out how in the post CTBT period the criticism of the BJP’s tests focussed mostly on economic consequences and the political intentions of the party espousing Hindutva. Jettisoning of the country’s non-violent heritage was challenged indicating the new biases of attentive India. The debates revolved around the meaning of the tests for modernity and scientific achievement, of costs, implications for image and status but not on what actually constituted a credible deterrent in ‘classic, military terms’. In the author’s words, ‘India’s nuclear tests defended the idea of a sovereign, independent India.’ The idea had changed in the build up to the fiftieth anniversary of independence and would continue to resonate into the new century.

Chapter six discusses how the Kargil intrusion in the shadow of the tests faced India to face up to the military implications of the tests. The draft nuclear doctrine then being drawn up was speedily released a month after the ceasefire. It further forced the debate since in being expansive it meant many things to many people. Kargil made defence mainstream, even as the draft placed the nuclear question at its center. The return of the BJP to power in wake of the war, led to developments in the security field both organisational and conceptual that have since kept attentive India focussed on the hitherto fore ignored matters of defence. India’s defence posture evolved to more offensive and proactive one in the right wing nationalist party’s redefining of India. India has attempted to carve out a new global space for itself on the back of the demonstration of the capability.

The author concludes that, ‘For attentive India, India’s possession of nuclear weapons matters not because the country need them to protect its territorial integrity but because they defend a certain political idea of India that had been negotiated during discussions of its foreign, defence and economic policies in the 1990s.’ Consequently, India, in the imagining of attentive India, is not as a ‘nuclear weapons state’. The nuclear weapons status and arsenal are instead ‘co-opted into the political imaging of the country, as attentive India seeks to define a global, regional and domestic role for the country over the next 50 years of independent existence.’