By Mr. Anurag Sinha

India’s nuclear experiments in 1998 were a sign that it was no longer secure in its immediate external operational environment. The nuclear threat from China and a (construed) combined conventional threat from Pakistan made India take recourse to the path of nuclearism. Though India already possessed the technological capability, and had only maintained a climate of ambiguity with regard to its nuclear status since 1974, this move on the part of India betrays a lot more than just a safeguard against China. The tests signify India’s entry into international politics as a major player, and its aspirations to reach a great power status. Inasmuch as the nuclear weapon states retain their exclusive status and influence world politics, burgeoning middle powers would always seek to gain entry into this glorified club. That the nuclear experiments triggered an almost immediate response in kind from Pakistan and increased the conventional threshold was a matter which could hardly be avoided, and in the context of South Asia, all this has done is to nuclearise the subcontinent, and escalated the fears of the other states in the region.

India’s nuclear stance has been to achieve minimum credible deterrence, emphasising a second-strike capability. However, if this deterrence were the only logical fallout of the threats perceived from China, it still remains unclear as to whether India has developed proficient delivery systems to pose a nuclear deterrent to the Chinese mainland. India has, since its 1998 tests and the self-imposed moratorium on nuclear experiments, conducted further tests in the last few years, most recently in 2006. The problematic, though, remains that these tests have proved less than conclusive. Ironically, India’s nuclear calculations have now primarily to be carried out with respect to Pakistan, while the persistent and perceived threat of China still looms large.

However, we must also be mindful of other important developments. India retains a no first use policy, and thus attempts to highlight its credibility as a responsible nuclear power. With this credibility, India could then proceed to assume an important role as an actor in world politics, and be seen as a worthy entrant into the nuclear club. In fact, India’s record is far better than those of Israel and Pakistan (the two other confirmed nuclear powers outside the P-5), who’ve been given to a little belligerence now and then. Also, India hopes to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a fact that it has evinced vocally over the course of this century. A veto power in the UN is a coveted prize, the aim for which might have only been an accident of the nuclear experiment. However, it was never a secret that the veto would only exist for those that had a say in the security paradigm of the world, and in the course of time, India has found a toe-hold in the same.

India’s nuclear capability has also provided it with a prominence far beyond what it could have perceived in 1991. From a struggling economy, India is now one of the definitive leaders in scientific and information technology. Also, India’s growing importance can be understood from the two civilian nuclear deals that were conducted in 2006 with France and the USA. The second one came amid much furore and debate, and, in fact, served once more to change the dynamic of international relations. Pakistan had been a close ally of the USA, and was even given an observer status in the NATO. This development augmented fears on the Indian side on a possible US-Pakistan combine political affront in 2004. However, the current nuclear deal has changed the ball game entirely, so to say.

India’s relations with the USA have also undergone sea changes in the face of developments in the post-Cold War world. There has been a conspicuous stance taken by India on the subject of the American proposal to develop the “Star Wars” program, which would essentially be in violation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 between the US and the USSR. India claims that the US should reserve the right of ascertaining its own security concerns, and take whatever measures it deems fit to guarantee national security. However, on a more careful analysis, especially given the direction that Indo-US ties have headed in the last year, it could also be said that India wants to acquire similar technologies, to guarantee escalation dominance over Pakistan, and to thwart any nuclear blackmail on the part of China. Joint military exercises have also been conducted to contribute to troop readiness, development and strategising, while the two navies have been jointly patrolling the Straits of Malacca.

It is difficult to argue in favour of whether India’s security scenario has improved or not with the successful nuclear tests of 1998. If the perceived threat from China were the only criterion for the tests, then the same still loom large. In terms of the immediate surroundings, the Kargil conflict broke out after the tests, and in essence, gave proof of the fact that the nuclear umbrella had meant the escalation of the conventional threshold. With such an escalation, it is possible for countries to fight longer and bloodier wars, since nuclear deterrence would mean that neither state would have a telling superiority. Thus, the tests only exposed India’s rough nuclear and conventional parity with Pakistan.

However, what the 1998 tests have ensured is that India’s position in the calculation of world politics has been significantly and positively revamped. A modicum of economic development along with the nuclear status has fortified India as one of the major powers in world politics today, more deeply engaged in the affairs of the world than ever before. If the threats of old still persist, India has also found now a place from which to effectively counter the same, as evident from the improving relations with China and Pakistan.

Thus, it can be said that even if India’s security scenario may not have improved a great deal since the 1998 nuclear tests, India has found a more fluid balance with which to address these issues. India’s foreign policy is less reactive, and not driven by inherent insecurities; instead a more realist orientation is betrayed by the foreign policy makers today.