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Monday, March 20, 2000

Troubling truths about India's bomb

Staff writer
INDIA'S NUCLEAR BOMB: The Impact on Global Proliferation, by George Perkovich. University of California Press, 1999, 597 pp., $39.95 (cloth).

In many ways, the remarkable thing about India's nuclear bomb test on May 11, 1998 is not that it occurred, but that it didn't happen sooner. Ever since India detonated its first "peaceful nuclear explosion" at the Pokhran test site in 1974, analysts had said that a real bomb was just around the corner. But for a variety of reasons, it never materialized.

In fact, as George Perkovich argues in this extraordinary study -- an exhaustive effort that is sure to be the definitive work on the subject -- India's nuclear program confounds the experts on just about every count. "India's Nuclear Bomb" is a fascinating explanation of the reasons for these misunderstandings and the consequences that flow from them. It should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand nuclear proliferation.

As history, "India's Nuclear Bomb" is hard to beat. It covers the entire history of the country's nuclear-development program, with interviews from key participants in politics and the scientific community. They are supplemented with news and ample commentary from Indian newspapers. India's policies are framed within an international context: relations with Pakistan, China, the Soviet Union and the United States. It is an exemplary effort.

That alone would earn the book a place in every serious researcher's library. But Perkovich's conclusions are the really unnerving parts of the book. They defy conventional wisdom and pose troubling questions for anyone who hopes to tackle the nonproliferation question.

For example, among the surprises is the almost complete lack of input that India's military had in nuclear decision-making. While it is natural to think that the brass pushed the nuclear program forward, in reality, the military has been almost completely shut out.

That, in part, explains the 24-year delay between the first blast and the bomb. Politicians -- basically, the prime minister -- kept a firm grip on nuclear policy. They refused to be rushed into precipitate decisions.

While that may have slowed the march toward "weaponization," it also meant there was no counter to the scientific community's claims about the costs, progress of and prospects for the nuclear program. This monopoly on expertise meant that prime ministers had an uphill fight when arguing against developing the bomb. The public debate over weapons was similarly unbalanced.

Scientists rallied behind the weapons program because they saw it as an opportunity to claim equality with the West on technical grounds. The country's nuclear program -- and the eventual development of a bomb -- was going to be the great leveler. Technology would lift the twin burdens of colonialism and racism from Indian shoulders.

Indeed, Perkovich argues that the founders of India's weapons program -- including Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru -- were thinking of a bomb from the very start. "Contrary to most Indian and external historiography and conventional understanding, the founders of India's nuclear establishment recognized and welcomed from the beginning the options its military dimension gave to India, notwithstanding Nehru's genuine hope that India could retain a purely peaceful mission."

This occurred before the communists took over China and before there was any military threat from Beijing. And that is another of the disturbing conclusions of this work: India's development of nuclear weapons had little to do with military threat. The program was conceived in terms of national stature. While the 1974 test was preceded by shifts in the international environment -- the U.S. breakthrough in relations with China, a war between India and Pakistan -- Perkovich shows that "these important developments had less direct bearing on nuclear policy than is often assumed. . . . The final decision to conduct the test was the result of an ad hoc, intuitive process that lacked rigorous security analysis."

In fact, the test probably worsened India's security environment. It intensified international pressure -- especially by the U.S. -- on New Delhi to adopt the nonproliferation regime, it had no noticeable impact on China, and it spurred Pakistan, India's chief foe, to redouble work on its own bomb.

A close study of the record shows that domestic politics and personalities were driving the nuclear program. There were conditions that "allowed" India to develop capabilities, but "domestic -- rather than international security -- factors must be recognized to answer why India began developing the bomb option in the '50s and why it moved in fits and starts through the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s. Just as important, domestic factors explain why India through 1998 did not declare itself a nuclear weapons power and deploy a nuclear arsenal."

Those factors pushed in different directions. Perkovich identifies two forces pushing the country toward production of a bomb: the "strategic enclave" of scientists and India's national identity and aspirations, which included the desire to become an independent, great state on the international stage and to transcend its colonial past.

The institutional framework, which locked the military out of decision-making, and the country's economic straits militated against weaponization. Other factors influenced the calculus, but the bottom line, argues Perkovich, is that "American-originated theories of structural realism, rational choice and nuclear deterrence cannot explain why and how India's nuclear policy developed from 1947 to 1964."

If that isn't disturbing enough, "India's Nuclear Bomb" challenges much of the conventional thinking about how to get rid of the bomb. While democratic countries are supposed to be more peace-loving, history shows that democratic countries have a hard time giving up their nuclear arsenals. Constituencies for the bomb -- nationalists, the military, the bomb-making industry -- develop. Look at the difficulties the U.S. has when trying to pare its arsenal.

Take that reasoning further. In India's case, we are not talking about nonproliferation -- preventing the spread of weapons. Rather, the issue is "unproliferation" -- taking away weapons. Policymakers and researchers have focused on the former, but unproliferation requires an entirely different response. Moreover, since security concerns are not driving the process, security promises aren't enough to solve the problem.

If, for example, the acquisition of a nuclear-weapons capability is a symbolic issue, then it is hard to see what can substitute for that symbol. It is hard to see the threats that justify the British and French arsenals. And if the bomb is seen as conferring equality, giving it up means abandoning that quest. In Perkovich's words, "as long as resistance to unproliferation is identified with defying colonialism, racism and emasculation, it will be difficult to overcome."

Finally, there is the problem of "nuclear apartheid" embodied in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. (That phrase is incendiary, but that is precisely the point.) The NPT is a bargain: The nuclear "haves" pledge to eventually eliminate their arsenals and the "have-nots" vow not to acquire weapons, in exchange for which they get access to other nuclear technology. As has become painfully clear, the first part of that deal is a sham. The nuclear powers may be willing to cut the number of their weapons, but there is no indication of their willingness to give them up completely.

That affects India in two ways. First, there is a security link. The U.S. has weapons to protect itself against Russia and China, China has weapons to do the same, and Beijing's missiles give India a rationale for its arsenal. (That explanation is weak, however, since security factors are not driving nuclear decision-making.)

The second link is more important. Nations insist on equality in international relations. That is the essence of democracy, and we are told at every opportunity that democracy is the goal -- be it domestically or internationally. Yet the possession of nuclear arms draws a sharp line between states, permanently dividing haves and have-nots. Would China or Russia be the international players that they are -- possessors of U.N. Security Council seats -- without their nukes? The status effects are pretty clear.

Perkovich's point is that, the protests of the strategic community aside, proliferation and disarmament are linked. The failure of nuclear nations to disarm makes unproliferation virtually impossible. The sheer hypocrisy involved is one thing -- "do as I say, not as I do" -- but once a nation has developed its own bomb, it must be persuaded to give it up by nations that have refused to do the same. There is no compelling logic besides brute force (international sanctions, not war) and that violates the idea of democracy.

If "India's Nuclear Bomb" upsets much of the Western thinking about nuclear weapons, Indians will be equally unnerved by Perkovich's revelations. In addition to destroying the myth that India moved only reluctantly toward a weapons capability, they will be troubled to learn how they have been consistently deceived -- if not lied to -- by the scientists behind the program. They made unrealistic claims about its prospects, and the yields of the blasts in 1974 and 1998 seem to have been exaggerated. The public will also be displeased to know that the much-repeated claim that the program is entirely indigenous is untrue: Foreign technology and heavy water have been indispensable to its development.

In short, George Perkovich is sure to upset just about everyone with this book. That means he is probably right.

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