Arming India

By Dhume, Sadanand | Harvard International Review, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Arming India


Dhume, Sadanand, Harvard International Review


A New Plan for a Nuclear Power

On February 22, 2001, Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes made an announcement that went largely unnoticed outside India: within a year, the country would be ready to conduct a test of its long-range missile, the AGNI II.

AGNI II is the most recent chapter in the long saga of India's metamorphosis from a pious moralist preaching against the folly of the bomb to a brazen gatecrasher demanding membership in the nuclear-weapons club. With a purported range of 2,500 kilometers, the AGNI II missile takes New Delhi's strategists one step closer to their cherished objective--harnessing the potential to deliver a nuclear payload deep inside China.

Nonetheless, three years after Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee exploded five bombs in the deserts of Rajasthan and declared India a nuclear power, the contours of India's arsenal remain a mystery. A so-called "draft nuclear doctrine" released by the government in 1999 raised more questions than it answered. India says it wants a minimal but credible nuclear deterrent. But no one is quite sure how many weapons this slogan warrants, how the bombs will be delivered, or whom they will target.

A Nuclear Strategy for India, by Indian Rear Admiral Raja Menon, may be a good place to start looking for answers. Though it does not reflect official policy--Menon retired from the Indian navy seven years ago--the book offers a peek into the fierce battle being waged among a handful of strategists seeking to influence the size, shape, and posture of India's nuclear weapons program.

Menon's argument is based on three premises. First, the international system is governed by realism rather than idealism (Hans Morgenthau is invoked on the very first page). Second, India can learn from Western deterrence theory--a theory whose complex and make-believe calculations prompted both the United States and the Soviet Union to amass enough weapons to destroy the Earth several times over. Third, "India is a poor country in a rich man's game" and is therefore unable to afford the same choices as more prosperous countries.

Menon chastises the Indian bomb lobby's favorite whipping boy, Jawaharlal Nehru, the country's first prime minister. Nehru's idealism, the familiar argument goes, prevented India from testing nuclear weapons before the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty came into force in 1968, thus leaving the country on the wrong side of a permanent divide between those permitted to legitimately own nuclear weapons and everybody else. A persistent Nehruvian world view, says Menon, also prevented India from pursuing the logical follow-up to its first test in 1974--a weapons program. Menon also detects Nehru's ghost in the 1998 decision by the decidedly un-Nehruvian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to adopt a no-first-strike policy.

Hindsight is always 20/20, and attacking Nehru for his alleged lapses has almost become a cottage industry in India. What sets Menon's views apart from many of his peers is his belief in Western deterrence theory. The admiral heaps scorn on Indian postulates such as nuclear ambiguity and recessed deterrence, which argue that simply having the capacity to retaliate with nuclear weapons is deterrent enough. These postulates assume that India does not need to combine warheads with missiles in advance, let alone deploy them for use, in order to achieve its goal of safeguarding against a possible nuclear attack from China or Pakistan. As long as both China and Pakistan know, or even suspect, that India has the capacity to nuke a major city, they will be deterred. …

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