India’s rickety nuclear deterrent illustrates the “smoke but don’t inhale” approach of our timid policymakers. Given their pre-occupation with making money for themselves and friends and family, our politicians leave less consequential activities such as national and foreign policy to officials. In a system where there is zero retribution for omission but a high risk of punishment for commission, it is small wonder that timidity has marked foreign and domestic policies, if bombastic verbiage is ignored. In Homi Jehangir Bhabha, India had a scientist with vision and drive, who would have made the country a nuclear weapon state had he been given the political go ahead. However, Jawaharlal Nehru placed more reliance on his international stature than on military prowess in assuring the safety of the country from outside intervention, and Bhabha was never given all that he needed in order to propel this country towards parity at least with France and the UK in matters nuclear. As a consequence of Nehru’s incomprehension of the necessity for a nuclear deterrent, it was China that exploded a device before India, despite the fact that this country’s nuclear establishment was at that point in time far more advanced than Beijing’s.
The putting in place of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty ought to have been when India set off its first nuclear explosives. However, it was only in 1974 that Pokhran I took place. The “peaceful nuclear explosion” (so named presumably because no human lives were lost in the operation) resulted in a volley of sanctions against India, soon viciously led by US President Jimmy Carter, who was clear in his conviction that a country such as India was too barbaric to have a weapon that (in his view) should be the monopoly of the “civilised world”. The best response to such pressure would have been to press ahead with more explosions, so as to perfect the technology and train more personnel in its manufacture and use. Once it was clear that India could not be pushed back into a box, negotiations would have taken place that would have brought this country into the NPT as a nuclear weapons state. Instead, the fact that fear of international reaction prevented India’s leaders from a second explosion for 24 years gave confidence to the “civilised world” that it could succeed in arm-twisting India into giving up nuclear weapons altogether. In 1998, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee did what Prime Minister Rao was persuaded by his Finance Minister not to do in 1995, explode the Pokhran II nuclear devices. Subsequently, the PM unilaterally announced an end to further testing and thereby refused to sanction the additional tests then needed to ensure a workable set of devices.
To this day, despite the brave talk of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, India has been given only grief for the way in which it has diluted its Three Stage Programme and its nuclear autonomy through the India-US nuclear deal. Barack Obama has reverted to the Clinton policy of seeking a rollback of this country’s nuclear and missile programme, except that these days, the effort comes camouflaged as “constructive cooperation”, which has the sole objective of finding out ways of slowing strategic programmes rather than doing the sensible thing of collaborating with India in mastering thorium technology as well as space applications. India’s bonsai-sized nuclear programme is testimony to the way in which the timidity of its officialdom has prevented the exploitation of its geopolitical potential. What is clear is that such cowardice failed to prevent the volley of sanctions that still afflict India, whereas a vigorous policy of testing and development would have forced the US and the rest of the “civilised” world to accept India as a country which deserves the same rights and consideration as themselves.
And now comes Afghanistan. Doomsayers say that the withdrawal of US troops will lead to a surge in Taliban control. In fact, the best recruiting agent for that body of terrorists is the US presence. Once foreign troops leave, much of the impetus for recruitment into Taliban ranks will cease, except for the levies pushed across the border by the Pakistan army. The people of Afghanistan have tested the Taliban during 1996-2001 and do not want their return. However, the Afghan National Army needs training and equipment, and India is well placed to provide both. Rather than the Halfway House strategy that Indian officialdom is so prone to, what is needed is a full scope engagement that includes the supply of weapons and the training of soldiers. The Taliban represents a security challenge not only to its home country but to ours as well, and the front where it needs to be fought and defeated should not be Kashmir or other parts of India, but Afghanistan.