Our Man In Bombay

Prem Panicker

India's nuclear gamble


Dateline: 12 May 1998 -- All the king's horses and all the king's men -- or rather, all the US spy satellites and CIA operatives -- didn't have a clue.

Nuclear experts in the United States of America, in fact, learnt of the May 11 detonation of three devices -- ranging from the nuclear to the thermonuclear -- in Pokharan, Rajasthan, only from the wires, and television stations.

Wrong-footed, those experts have reacted with anger -- against the American intelligence network for not alerting them, against the Indian government for giving no advance notice of their intentions.

Why the US of A, with its awesome intelligence gathering machinery, was completely blind-sided by India's nuclear testing will, presumably, be a matter for internal investigation in that country.

Why the Indian government didn't let out so much as a cheep, before busting the bomb, however, seems rather easier to understand.

In January 1996, the then Indian government had contemplated a test similar to the one carried out on Monday. On that occasion, US intelligence agencies had caught wind of the event, and alerted the president. And Bill Clinton, via diplomatic channels, had quietly warned New Delhi that if it carried out a nuclear test, it would let itself in for strict sanctions as per the provisions of a 1994 statute known as the Glenn Amendment.

Named after its parent -- Democratic Senator from Ohio John Glenn -- the statute mandates that the US should cut off all economic and military aid, credits, bank loans and export licenses to any country, other than the five acknowledged nuclear powers, that tests a nuclear weapon.

As per the provisions, the Clinton administration will have to cut off all government aid to India, bar American banks from making loans to the Indian government, stop export of all American products with military uses, such as machine tools and computers and, crucially, formally oppose all aid to India proposed to be given by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Such sanctions could entail, for India, the loss of billions of dollars -- an estimated $ 2 billion a year from the WB, a further $ 170-odd million in aid from the US government, besides the as yet uncalculated damage caused to its developmental programmes by the embargo on export of such key info-tech items as computers.

"Those sanctions are mandatory," was Senator Glenn's immediate response to the news of India's latest nuclear test.

It was this stick the Clinton administration held out, in 1996, to stop New Delhi from pressing the nuclear button. This time round, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government pre-empted such threats, by moving in secrecy to conduct the test, then blandly announcing that it had done so via a terse, five-line media briefing. No notice, and therefore, no threats to contend with.

The question remains, why now? One reason could be that the Comprehensive (Nuclear) Test Ban Treaty, which India has thus far steadfastly refused to sign, is rapidly approaching full ratification. As of this present, 149 nations have signed the treaty, and 13 of those nations have ratified it.

Once ratified, India will remain permanently locked on the nuclear "threshold" -- a term used in nuclear-speak to denote those countries that are believed capable of making the bomb, but have not yet declared nuclear powers.

As of now, five countries -- the USA, Britain, China, France and the erstwhile Soviet Union -- are acknowledged nuclear powers. And all five have signed the CTBT.

A further three nations -- Belarus, Kazakstan and Ukraine -- possess nuclear weapons, but have turned over their control to Russia.

South Africa earlier acknowledged possession of nukes, but jettisoned them before the apartheid regime ended and the colored majority took over the reins of government. India, Israel, Pakistan and, in some estimates, North Korea are "threshold" nations -- and none of these have signed the NPT. And Iran, Iraq and Libya are known nuclear wannabes.

What India actually achieved, via detonation of those three devices in Pokhran on Monday, is to cross the threshold, and become the sixth official nuclear power.

The surprise this development has caused in international circles is itself surprising -- for there was surely no dearth of signals beforehand. The BJP, during its election campaign earlier this year, clearly stated as one of its goals that it would "induct nuclear weapons" into the arsenal -- a phrase that means, purely and simply, that the BJP intended to go public and formally place nuclear weapons in its military stockpile.

It delivered on that promise, in its seventh week in office.

The cue prompt for the testing was equally obvious. A month ago, Pakistan had tested its ICBM -- code-named Ghauri. Announcing the test result, Pakistan's prime minister had clearly indicated that the intent was offensive. Later, responding to some speculation in Indian and international news media about the provenance of the missile (it was suggested in some quarters that Ghauri was not entirely indigenous), a senior member of the Pakistan military establishment officially responded thus: "When Ghauri homes in on an Indian city, its inhabitants are not going to be too concerned about whether every nut and bolt was actually made in Pakistan."

The operative words therein, for Indian defense experts, are "When" -- not 'if', but 'when' -- and "Indian city" -- again, not the more general "a target".

The testing in Pokharan earlier this week was at least in part cued by threat perceptions emanating from the above statement. Effectively, the signal being sent was that India not only had thermonuclear capability (no secret, in any event) but also the capacity to deliver the payload to designated targets.

That there would be sharp international response was anticipated.

"We are prepared to face sanctions," a party spokesperson said in New Delhi within minutes of Prime Minister Vajpayee's formal announcement of the tests.

That such sanctions, if and when imposed, could have a crippling effect on the national budget is a given. More so if the European Union takes its cue from the United States. While Britain, now presiding over the Union, has no equivalent of the Glenn Amendment, that country expects the Indian nuclear test and its implications to figure prominently in an upcoming policy meeting of the EU. India is the largest recipient of British government aid -- thus, if the EU follows the US lead, New Delhi will need to tighten its monetary belt a good few notches further.

What India stands to lose, thus, is very clear. Crippling shortage of funds for development purposes, plus a further crippling lack of computer and related infrastructural support just when its push towards modernity is poised to go into overdrive.

What does it stand to gain?

Quite simply, the status of full nuclear power -- the world's sixth. And the right to publicly place nuclear weapons in its arsenal, if it deems fit. Had the Clinton administration caught wind of the impending event, threats similar to those held out in January 1996 was certain -- and that in turn would have led to a messy diplomatic war-of-words at best, further delays at worst.

By going ahead with the tests, India moved from the status of a de facto nuclear power, to a de jure one.

Now it has to pay the price. Or does it?

The sanctions are not, first up, immediately implemented -- the president of the United States possesses the right to hold back on it for 30 days. And further, he can waive sanctions entirely, provided the move has the sanction of both Houses of the US Senate.

Why would the Senate even consider such a waiver?

Experts both in India and the US have already begun outlining a scenario where this is possible. Namely that India, having now done the deed, goes ahead and signs the CTBT, thus taking the wind out of its opponents' sails.

Will that happen? As with the actual testing, the BJP government and more importantly, Prime Minister Vajpayee is the only one who knows the answer to that one. And Vajpayee, for now, is keeping his cards very, very close to his chest, not giving anyone a chance for a quick peep-see.


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