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India: Go Nuclear to Win Respect?

Has India managed to gain global recognition by going nuclear?

March 1, 2003

Has India managed to gain global recognition by going nuclear?

I am not thrilled with owning a nuclear bomb. This puts me, I realize, in a tiny minority of Indians. But I would have been prouder if, instead of Pokhran — the site of India's 1998 nuclear test explosions — our government had announced that India's poverty had come down to 20%. Or literacy had risen to 80%. Or that we had achieved 8% GDP growth.

This is because I believe that national security is not only about having bombs and missiles — but that its genuine roots lie in economic strength.

Raising India's ranking on the Human Development Index or on the Per Capita Income Index or on the National Competitiveness Index would be a far more satisfying and surer way to achieve national security.

Instead, we still find ourselves amongst the lowest ranking nations in the world on all three indices.

Now that India and Pakistan both have the bomb, I believe, the subcontinent has become a dangerous place to bring up our children. Even if India behaves responsibly in creating safeguards on detonating the bomb, I worry that a mad or angry Pakistani general might decide to pull the trigger — and wipe us out.

This leads me to another straight-forward conclusion: There is stronger logic behind the global nuclear disarmament movement than the logic and rationale behind the doctrine of nuclear deterrence.

It goes beyond that. I am not convinced that India — with its overwhelming superiority in conventional weapons over Pakistan — has in fact furthered its national interest by going nuclear.

I fear we might have undermined our flexibility to fight conventional wars with Pakistan by moving towards a situation of nuclear parity.

But now that the deed is done — and the bomb is exploded — we should ask ourselves what benefits can we derive from the pride that has come with it.

There is nothing like a good nuclear bang to focus the mind. This is an opportunity, I believe, for the government to take the unpopular actions that the preceding governments have been too cowardly to take.

This is the time to tell the Indian people that they are the ones who have to pay for their nuclear status. And just how could we pay for this extravagance? This is the time to get rid of the irrational, populist subsidies that burden our economy.

Since everyone must tighten their belts, we must tell India's farmers, for example, that henceforth they must pay for power, water and fertilizers. This action will do wonders to restore the fiscal health of the country.

As we begin to adjust to living in the post-bang world we should ask ourselves what is important to us as a nation. What are our national goals? Where does the bomb fit into our objectives?

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party wants us to be counted and respected in the community of nations. That obviously cannot be a goal, for respect is the result of something that we achieve.

Military power, however, can be a national objective. But history teaches us that — unless military power is backed by economic power — it cannot be sustained. Russia has many atom bombs, Japan has none — but the world respects Japan.

I am very aware of the fact that economics is not everything. But it has to be the most important thing in a country like India — where one-third of the people live degraded lives of unimaginable poverty. Another third live in constant anxiety about making ends meet.

If we agree on economic growth as our national goal, then we must be prepared to measure all our actions against this criterion. We must also eschew the temptation to have multiple objectives.

Nations — like companies — are most effective when they are highly focused. We must evaluate every action of every politician and bureaucrat by asking, 'Does it promote economic growth?'

For example, law and order, speedy justice, political stability — all good in themselves — also promote growth by creating a sound climate for investment.

Can the nuclear bomb promote high growth? It can, conceivably. But only if it helps reduce the defense budget on the grounds that conventional forces can be cut once there is a nuclear deterrent — and the savings are ploughed into infrastructure.

And yet, as everybody is quickly aware, this is a specious argument. The experience of the last 50 years shows that no nuclear country has been able to cut its conventional arms.

Spending on nukes has invariably been an add-on to the existing defense burden of the country. In fact, the nuclear bomb will push us into a costly arms race, escalating our defense expenditures — and denying funds for economic development.

Does the bomb offer any other benefits? It could possibly have furthered our security — if Pakistan did not have it.

But how does it help if both sides have the bomb? It only makes the subcontinent a danger zone.

To this, the Bharatiya Janata Party responds with the classic deterrence argument — that the unthinkable horror of a nuclear disaster will deter self-interested, non-suicidal leaders on both sides to even start a conventional war. And thus, it will, paradoxically, promote peace.

The empirical evidence in support of this argument is that none of the members of the nuclear club has fought a war. While this argument has some logic, I believe the logic of disarmament is far greater.

But how does this help the Indian child who can't do his homework because of electrical power problems? In the end, our rulers have to remember that our national goal is not to prove anything to the world — or to our enemies. It is to improve the lot of India's own people. Nothing more, nothing less.

Adapted from "The Elephant Paradigm" by Gurcharan Das. Copyright © 2002 by Gurcharan Das. Used by permission of the author.