Santul Nerkar

India’s rise to nuclear status in the 1990s ushered in a new age of uncertainty in South Asia. Though there have been no great power wars between nuclear-armed states, South Asian stability has been called into question after events such as the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, thought by many to be an act of aggression by Pakistan, India’s fiercest rival and fellow nuclear power. In the background of the current situation, India’s specific path to acquiring nuclear capabilities continues to be a topic of intense scholarly debate. In his article “India’s Nuclear Odyssey: Implicit Umbrellas, Diplomatic Disappointments, and the Bomb,” Andrew Kennedy postulates that India followed this path due to a reliance on non-military measures, specifically international institutions & diplomacy and implicit umbrellas, or external support, to maintain security. Kennedy posits that once these measures were perceived to have failed by Indian leaders, the country sought to acquire nuclear weapons. I argue that while Kennedy puts forth a plausible neorealist explanation of India’s path to nuclear proliferation, he mistakenly attributes India’s initial nuclear restraint to confidence in the American commitment to safeguard India from Chinese nuclear aggression. Furthermore, Kennedy’s neorealist lens fails to account for domestic politics as a factor in India’s nuclear behavior, specifically in 1974. In this paper, I first summarize Kennedy’s main argument about India’s reliance on non-military measures. Then, I offer a critique of his analysis of India’s reliance on security umbrellas and propose a greater incorporation of domestic politics into explaining India’s path to nuclearization.

Kennedy emphasizes security as being that the central question facing leaders. In other words, leaders must decide not only whether to develop nuclear weapons, but how to protect their state against the potential of nuclear attack or coercion.[1] From this starting point, Kennedy contends that India initially relied on non-military measures to ensure its security, before ultimately feeling compelled to develop a secure and effective nuclear arsenal.

According to Kennedy, the first non-military measure that India relied on was an implicit security umbrella from existing nuclear powers. This draws upon the neorealist concept of external balancing, in which a state strengthens its alliances and interstate co-operation to counter a rising power.[2] China began to rise following India’s independence, and it conducted its first nuclear test on October 16, 1964.[3] Kennedy attributes India’s anxiety to this event, and he argues that Chinese nuclearization, as well as India’s defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian War, precipitated the establishment of a formal defense relationship between the United States and India. Kennedy offers President Lyndon Johnson’s statement immediately following China’s nuclear test as evidence of an implicit nuclear umbrella, as Johnson announced that the United States “reaffirms its defense commitments in Asia,” and that China’s growing nuclear program “would have no effect upon the readiness of the United States to respond to requests from Asian nations for help in dealing with Communist Chinese aggression.” Johnson also later spoke out against Chinese “nuclear blackmail.”[4] Kennedy notes the vagueness of Johnson’s statements as evidence of the “implicit” nature of the umbrella, and he contends that the implicit nature of the arrangement was done partially to keep Pakistani support by not explicitly supporting India. Nevertheless, Kennedy states that India “took Johnson’s implicit assurances seriously,” which he defends with statements from Indian Prime Minister Shastri and Defense Minister Chavan, who stated that China would not be able to coerce India into using nuclear weapons without eliciting reprisal from superpowers.[5] A CIA cable from 1964 reads that Indian leaders were “relying on President Johnson’s assurances to come to the aid of any nation menaced by China.”[6] In sum, Kennedy asserts that Indian confidence in American commitments to its security vis-a-vis China was the primary motivation behind India’s nuclear restraint. However, he goes on to say that Indian confidence in the United States’ commitments eroded once India realized that it could not translate the implicit assurances into a formal, explicit guarantee.[7]  Kennedy points to this loss of confidence as a catalyst for India’s retreat from the American umbrella toward an alliance with the Soviets, which was formalized in the 1971 “Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation.”[8] Kennedy then states that Moscow’s umbrella was India’s “only real answer to the Chinese bomb.”[9]

Kennedy also points to India’s reliance on diplomacy and international institutions as non-military alternatives to the nuclear option. Specifically, Kennedy marks this venture as a “diplomatic disappointment,” which eventually led to India’s nuclear acquisition. During the time period in which India relied on implicit umbrellas from the Americans and, subsequently, the Soviets, it consistently worked for a long-term international agreement that would protect non-nuclear states from nuclear coercion. Rather than invest in its own nuclear program, India pushed for worldwide denuclearization. Throughout the Non-Proliferation Treaty negotiations in the 1960s, for example, India insisted on a provision under which “extant nuclear powers would cease all production of nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles and then reduce their remaining capabilities.”[10] When this failed to materialize, India did not sign the NPT and turned away from nuclear diplomacy as a means of protection from nuclear aggression. Though India would revisit nuclear diplomacy under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s – when Soviet support began to wane – its plans for de-armament once against proved to be too ambitious. At that point, India finally began to consider developing its own nuclear program, and it became a de facto nuclear power in 1990.[11] India would not conduct a nuclear test until 1998, but after 1990 it possessed an “undeclared nuclear capability.”[12] Kennedy closes by pointing to the overall success of India’s reliance on implicit umbrellas throughout this period and only shifted strategies as the Cold War ended and diplomatic failures officially eliminated the Soviet nuclear umbrella over India. As a final effort, Kennedy says, India pushed for a nuclear test-ban treaty and other measures through international institutions, but to no avail.[13]

Kennedy’s characterization of India’s path to nuclearization falls largely within neorealist thought. As stated earlier, the implicit umbrella that Kennedy argues India sought from the superpowers is a form of external balancing, which occurs when states strengthen their alliances and increase cooperation to counter a rising power (in this case, China). Kennedy’s neorealist argument is strongest when he discusses India’s second non-military strategy for security, international institutions, and “nuclear diplomacy.” Within Neorealist thought, international institutions are insufficient to tackling the issue of security or security dilemma, which is where they are needed the most. India was unsuccessful in its effort to contain China’s rise as a nuclear power through nuclear diplomacy and international institutions .

Kennedy’s argument falls short, however, when it mistakenly attributes India’s initial nuclear restraint to confidence in American commitments. India’s belief in America’s commitments was not solid to begin with, as evidenced by Ambassador B.K. Nehru’s skepticism in November 1964: “[T]he United States would not come to our aid by attacking China if at the same time the Soviet Union said that it would assist China under such an attack.”[14] This stands in direct contrast to Kennedy’s claim that India “took Johnson’s implicit assurances very seriously.” A dispatch from Secretary of State Dean Rusk reads that “Indians seem to have done some thinking about assurances but still seem to have no firm idea what would best meet their needs. [The Government of India] has never directly raised question [sic] of security assurances with us, nor has it to our knowledge reacted to President’s statements of October 16 and 18, 1964.”[15] Thus, Indian confidence in the credibility of American commitments does little to describe its initial nuclear restraint, which is demonstrated by its reluctance to request any security assurance from the United States.

Kennedy points to statements made by PM Shastri and Defense Minister Chavan as evidence of Indian belief in American commitments following China’s nuclear test: “China alone could not do much damage to India or her position, for any kind of atomic war might become global,” said Shastri. “If such a war were to break out, we have friends to support us,” said Chavan.[16]

But as Jason Stone writes in “Debating India’s Path to Nuclearization”, the context of these statements is key. Shastri’s statement echoed that of former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who had said, “I do not myself conceive of any major nuclear effort against India by China. Any such thing would mean a world war.”[17] Nehru, who passed away five months before China’s first nuclear test, had the largest influence on Indian foreign policy since the country’s inception, so it stands to reason that Shastri and Chavan – relative political newcomers – initially leaned on his doctrine, argues Stone.[18] Based on these statements, it is unlikely that President Johnson’s assurances following the Xinjiang test established new Indian confidence in American commitments. Kennedy discounts the degree to which India’s foreign policy outlook was affected by path dependency in ideology. Perhaps a further look into India’s membership as a “non-aligned” country in its early political history is warranted, though, to better understand its nuclear restraint.

Kennedy also misleads with his use of a CIA Cable, which reads: “relying on President Johnson’s assurances to come to the aid of any nation menaced by China”, as evidence of Indian reliance on American assurance against Chinese aggression. The full dispatch reads: “India does not plan to commence work on the bomb as yet because the GOI [Government of India] is convinced the Chicoms [Chinese communists] will not have an offensive nuclear capability for at least five years. In the meantime, should the situation change, India is relying on President Johnson’s assurances[.]”[19] Even in the eyes of Americans, India’s initial nuclear restraint is due to the Indian belief that China does not possess the capabilities to successfully threaten India, not because of American commitments to Indian security.

Kennedy’s neorealist lens is useful for understanding the international system of the Cold War and, by extension, the relative balance of power in the region. But Kennedy’s argument ignores domestic politics as an explanatory variable in India’s path to acquiring nuclear weapons. While India’s frustrations with failed diplomacy and worries over security following the Soviet withdrawal of support factor into its path to acquiring nuclear weapons, they do not fully explain the puzzling nature of India’s path to nuclearization.

At the time of India’s first nuclear test in May of 1974, significant tensions existed in the Indian domestic political sphere , and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi needed solutions to increase her mandate. As Scott Sagan writes, “domestic support for the Gandhi government had fallen to an all-time low in late 1973 and early 1974” as a result of economic hardship.[20] A nuclear explosion served as an ideal way to boost Indian morale and domestic confidence in the Gandhi government and, unsurprisingly, public opinion polls taken after the “Smiling Buddha” test revealed that a staggering 90 percent of Indians were “personally proud of this achievement.”[21] There was a history of the Indian electorate responding with renewed faith to the Gandhi-led government after a show of force. Before her decline in popularity in 1973-4, for example, Gandhi had previously enjoyed a spike in her popularity after the 1971 War with Pakistan. Gandhi herself admitted that the  test “would have been useful for elections.”[22]

Without looking to India’s domestic politics and situation, India’s behavior is difficult to explain. Why would India delay its development of the bomb ten years after China’s first explosion and test the bomb just three years after dismantling its only other security threat, Pakistan? Furthermore, if India were now relying on the Soviet Union’s implicit umbrella of support against nuclear aggression, why would India be testing nuclear weapons? India’s nuclear explosion arguably exacerbated South Asian security concerns, as Pakistan responded to Smiling Buddha by announcing that it would have to develop its own nuclear arsenal. Therefore, it is hard to argue that India’s test was conducted to influence external actors. Rather, India’s actions point to a variant of diversionary theory, which states that leaders will undertake or instigate wars to distract its own people from domestic strife.[23] While a common criticism of diversionary theory is that the costs of war are too high for rational, informed leaders to gamble on, Indian leaders may have underestimated the extent to which Smiling Buddha would worsen regional stability and instead, they may have focused on the domestic political gains of such an action. The cost of war was zero, as Indian leaders knew that the test would not result in war. Therefore, the criticism of Diversionary Theory does not apply here.

Kennedy’s proposition that India’s nuclear restraint relied on American commitments to its security is supported neither by India’s behavior nor by statements from Indian leaders. Therefore, a deeper reading of Nehruvian foreign policy is needed in order to explore the apparent path dependency demonstrated by India’s new leaders at the time of China’s first nuclear test. Furthermore, while Kennedy’s neorealist lens cogently explains how failed institutions & diplomacy and a loss of Soviet support led to India’s rise as a de facto nuclear power in 1990, it cannot explain India’s path to nuclear development in the 1970s, a period in which the Soviet nuclear umbrella still protected India. Understanding Indian domestic politics and strife is, therefore, crucial to gaining a sense of the rationale behind the 1974 nuclear test. While India’s international and domestic political alignment today is different   from its position at the end of the Cold War, important lessons can be learned from its path to nuclear development to improve current and future stability and security in South Asia.

Endnotes:

[1]  Kennedy, B. Andrew. 2011. ‘India’s Nuclear Odyssey: Implicit Umbrellas, Diplomatic Disappointments, and the Bomb’. International Security, 36/2: 122.

[2] Waltz, “Theory of International Relations”, 118.

[3] Communist China’s Weapons Program for Strategic Attack, NIE 13-8-71 (Top Secret, declassified June 2004), Central Intelligence Agency, Washington D.C., 1971.

[4] Kennedy, 128.

[5] Ibid, 129.

[6] Central Intelligence Agency Intelligence information cable, “Indian Government Policy on Development of Nuclear Weapon,” October 22, 1964.

[7] Kennedy, 132.

[8] Kapur, Ashok. “Indo-Soviet Treaty and the Emerging Asian Balance.” Asian Survey, vol. 12, no. 6, 1972, pp. 463–474.

[9] Kennedy, 140.

[10] Ibid, 127.

[11] Ibid, 146.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, 144.

[14] “Memorandum of Conversation,” November 3, 1964, in Foreign Relations of the United States [FRUS]: 1964-1968, Vol. 25 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2000), item 74.

[15] “State Department Telegram for Governor Harriman from the Secretary, February 27, 1965 (SECRET),” in Joyce Battle, ed., National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book, No. 6 (Washington, D.C.: National Security Archive, George Washington University, n.d.), doc. 7, http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB6/index.html.

[16] Noorani, A.G., “India’s Quest for a Nuclear Guarantee,” Asian Survey, Vol. 7, No. 7 (July 1967), pp. 490-491.

[17] Mirchandani, G.G., India’s Nuclear Dilemma (New York: Humanities, 1968), p. 22.

[18] Kampani, G. & Sasikumar, K. & Stone, J. & Kennedy, A. B. “Debating India’s Pathway to Nuclearization.” International Security, vol. 37 no. 2, 2012, pp. 183-196.

[19] Central Intelligence Agency Intelligence information cable, “Indian Government Policy on Development of Nuclear Weapon,” October 22, 1964.

[20] Sagan, Scott D. “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?: Three Models in Search of a Bomb.” International Security, vol. 21, no. 3, 1996, p. 68.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Rodney W. Jones, “India,” in Jozef Goldblet, ed., Non-Proliferation: the Why and the Wherefore (London: Taylor and Francis, 1985), p. 114.

[23] Sobek, David. “Rallying Around the Podesta: Testing Diversionary Theory Across Time.” Journal of Peace Research vol 44, no. 1, 2007, p.68. 30 November 2016.

[24] Interesting literature also suggests that status is particularly important to India; see: Miller, Neal E. 1941. The Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis. Psychological Review vol. 48, no. 4, pp 337–42.

Reference List

Central Intelligence Agency Intelligence information cable, “Indian Government Policy on Development of Nuclear Weapon,” October 22, 1964.

Communist China’s Weapons Program for Strategic Attack, NIE 13-8-71 (Top Secret, declassified June 2004), Central Intelligence Agency, Washington D.C., 1971.

Kampani, G. & Sasikumar, K. & Stone, J. & Kennedy, A. B. “Debating India’s Pathway to Nuclearization.” International Security, vol. 37 no. 2, 2012, pp. 183-196.

Kapur, Ashok. “Indo-Soviet Treaty and the Emerging Asian Balance.” Asian Survey, vol. 12, no. 6, 1972, pp. 463–474.

Kennedy, B. Andrew. 2011. ‘India’s Nuclear Odyssey: Implicit Umbrellas, Diplomatic Disappointments, and the Bomb’. International Security, 36/2: 120–53.

“Memorandum of Conversation,” November 3, 1964, in Foreign Relations of the United States [FRUS]: 1964-1968, Vol. 25 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2000), item 74.

Mirchandani, G.G., India’s Nuclear Dilemma (New York: Humanities, 1968), p. 22.

Noorani, A.G., “India’s Quest for a Nuclear Guarantee,” Asian Survey, Vol. 7, No. 7 (July 1967), pp. 490-491.

Jones, Rodney W., “India,” in Jozef Goldblet, ed., Non-Proliferation: the Why and the Wherefore (London: Taylor and Francis, 1985), p. 114.

Sagan, Scott D. “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?: Three Models in Search of a Bomb.” International Security, vol. 21, no. 3, 1996, pp. 54–86.

Sobek, David. “Rallying Around the Podesta: Testing Diversionary Theory Across Time.” Journal of Peace Research vol 44, no. 1, 2007, p.68. 30 November 2016.

“State Department Telegram for Governor Harriman from the Secretary, February 27, 1965 (SECRET),” in Joyce Battle, ed., National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book, No. 6 (Washington, D.C.: National Security Archive, George Washington University, n.d.), doc. 7, http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB6/index.html.

Waltz, Kenneth N., “Theory of International Relations” (Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1979).