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Pokhran nuke tests and symbolism of May as a nuclear month

Written by: Staff

New Delhi, May 10 (UNI) The month of May is usually very, very hot in the plains of India and by a combination of complex causal factors that include design and coincidence, this is a month that is deeply associated with the country's nuclear narrative.

May 11, 1998 marks the first Pokhran 2 nuclear test that saw India declaring itself as a de-facto nuclear weapon state during the early months of the Vajpayee-led NDA government.

This was followed by another test on May 13 and the world had a sixth nuclear weapon state. Pakistan followed with its nuclear tests in end May 1998 and the strategic profile of South Asia was definitively transformed.

But 1998 was preceded by the May 18, 1974 Indian PNE-or Peaceful Nuclear Explosion-when under the stewardship of the late Indira Gandhi, India demonstrated its technological capability with an underground explosion. The cryptic message relayed to Delhi from the test site in Rajasthan was: "The Buddha had smiled." However, India chose not to be a nuclear weapon state and this was impelled by a distinctive Indian strategic culture.

And for the sake of the record, it must be added that May is also associated with two purported nuclear crisis situations - the first in 1990 when the US White House under Mr George Bush (senior) sent a special envoy, Mr. Robert Gates, to ostensibly defuse a very tense nuclear stand-off in the sub-continent. Mr Gates was in Delhi and Islamabad on May 19 and 20, respectively and this was the focus of a very alarmist account put out by famous American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in 1993 about the nuclear Armageddon that was avoided by timely US intervention. This has become the dominant interpretation among many Western scholars and analysts for over a decade and 'May 1990' is synonymous in strategic circles with an Indo-Pak nuclear crisis. It was this incident that led former US President Bill Clinton to describe the sub-continent as the 'most dangerous place on earth'. However, it is only now that this scare scenario is being revisited and reviewed objectively and recent US scholarship is case in point.

The other notable punctuation in May is the Kargil War of 1999 when what seemed a routine incursion into Indian territory by irregulars turned out to be a far more insidious tactical move by the Pakistani military under General Pervez Musharraf. By end May 1999 when the Indian Air Force was inducted, the anxiety about escalation mounted in various quarters. Thus, one notices a pattern about the month of May that appears to be inexorably linked with the Indian nuclear experience and on the 8th anniversary of the May 1998 tests it is pertinent to reflect over India's nuclear trajectory.

Eight years down the nuclear road, an objective cost-benefit analysis would suggest that India's core national interests have been better served by May 1998 and paradoxically-the Kargil War of May 1999. India's regional nuclear matrix had become very animated in the aftermath of the Cold War and both China and Pakistan forged a close and opaque nuclear weapon-missile co-operation programme that had very adverse consequences for India's sovereignty and security. Simultaneously a clandestine nuclear Wal-Mart under the deft control of Pakistani scientist Dr. AQ Khan was in operation though the details of this emerged only recently. In the mid-1990s the global community was also trying to corral India into signing a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Against this backdrop, however reluctantly, the national consensus veered towards exercising the nuclear option-first under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in late 1995-though this was aborted-and finally the decision to cross the Rubicon was taken by the Vajpayee team in May 1998. Almost immediately on May 13, India committed itself to a "no-first-use, minimum deterrent" doctrine to assuage global concerns and this doctrinal restraint paid rich dividends in May 1999.

The Kargil War is again in the news with the release of then Army Chief, General VP Malik's book on the subject. However, what is germane now is the manner in which India's determination not to resort to any escalation or nuclear sabre rattling-in contrast to what Pakistan exuded-led to a burnishing of India's credentials as a nascent but responsible nuclear weapon power. While Kargil was a tactical lapse for the Indian security establishment, it inadvertently served to enhance its credibility in husbanding the apocalyptic nuclear weapon.

From 1999 onwards, it may be posited that India's strategic stock gradually went up in global perception leading not only to the Clinton visit of March 2000 that heralded the improvement of India-US relations but also laid the foundation for the radical shift in US policy that was to follow. The May 1998 nuclear tests and the rectitude associated with India post-1999 have enhanced the relevance accorded to Delhi in the emerging global matrix. While there is no denying that India's robust post reform economic indicators are the basis for national power and prosperity, it must be noted that- however unpalatable this may be from the humanist and ethical perspective-an India without nuclear weapons in 2006 would have counted for less in the global strategic stock exchange.

One may further argue that the recent agreement reached between India and the US beginning July 2005 and consolidated in March 2006 was enabled to a large extent by the events of May 1998 and 1999.

Today India is perceived as one of six nodes of relevance in the emerging global hexagon of the 21st century - the other five being the US, EU, China, Russia and Japan. This realpolitik acknowledgement would not have been as forthcoming if India had remained in a pre May 1998 status.

However, this is not a paean for the nuclear weapon or praise for India's current strategic profile. From May 1998 onwards, India has remained hobbled by its own reluctance and diffidence about what constitutes credible minimum deterrence. This ambivalence about the credibility index was most discernible in the public debate about the separation of Indian nuclear facilities into civilian and non-civilian as part of the India-US agreement.

The ultimate challenge to Indian nuclear policy making is to ponder over the chequered experiences of May from 1974 onwards and evolve a calibrated approach that would maximise the emerging opportunities to harness nuclear energy - from the breeder technology to fusion through the ITER program that India has just been admitted to. The conceptual challenge will be to shift the global focus from the military potential of nuclear technology to its more benign uses-the original atoms for peace concept. The former avatar of the atom must be kept to the minimum for purposes of strategic insurance while the latter must metaphorically blossom to fuel prosperity. The global community and India will benefit from such an ethical shift-ethics being enlightened self-interest.

(Cmde C Uday Bhaskar is a Delhi-based defence and strategic affairs analyst. The views expressed here are personal.) UNI XC NK GC1600

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