Point, Counter-Point: Nuclear Weapons – Status or Security?

Earlier in this series:

Point: The South Asian Nuclear Trajectory – From Reluctance to Readiness

Counter-Point: The Perception Differential 


Has Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent been for security and India’s just for status? In all likelihood, we can categorise the Indian nuclear deterrent as having served a number of purposes over the years.  Scott Sagan’s three models of security, domestic politics, and norms, with regard to why states go nuclear, all apply to India. In this post, with regard to India, I shall look particularly at the norms-based, status argument. Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent has, on the other hand, always had a security angle – right from the inception of the nuclear programme in the aftermath of the 1971 debacle, to securing it from Indian retribution in the aftermaths of 2001 and 2008. For Pakistan the relationship of its nuclear deterrent with status has been inverse, while for India, this relationship has had positive dividends.

 “India is now a nuclear weapon state. This is a reality that cannot be denied. It is not a conferment that we seek; nor is it a status for others to grant… It is India’s due, the right of one-sixth of human-kind.”

– Atal Behari Vajpayee (1998), Statement to the Parliament

There have been a number of arguments on both sides of the spectrum on whether Indian nuclear weapons have been primarily for status-seeking purposes or for security. Of course, it wasn’t a status for others to grant or a conferment that India sought. In fact the nuclear blasts conducted 1998 were meant to signal that regardless of the plans and expectations that the world had for (or of) India, it was going to augment its status by itself. There are two levels to this. One is the domestic (internal) imperative, and the other the international.

Internally, there was a strong belief from the time of Bhabha and Nehru, that nuclear power was a panacea to Indian industrial and economic backwardness. The path back to greatness was inherently interwoven with nuclear capability:

“…and the industrial age came in. India with all her virtues did not develop that source of power. It became a backward country because of that. The steam age and the industrial age were followed by the electrical age which gradually crept in, and most of us were hardly aware of that change…Now we are facing the atomic age; we are on the verge of it. And this is something infinitely more powerful than either steam or electricity.”

 – Jawaharlal Nehru

Beyond this internal logic, lay the framework of the international system. An exclusive club was created in 1970 (as the NPT came into force) of 5 Nuclear Weapons States (NWS).  An arbitrary grouping of P5 states, all permanent members of the UN Security Council, legitimized by the phrase “For the purposes of this Treaty, a nuclear-weapon State is one which has manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device prior to 1 January 1967.” Given the lack of motion on Article VI (general and complete disarmament), this meant that these two categories of NWS and ‘non nuclear weapons states’(NNWS) would be set in stone. Indian attempts at subverting this order date back to the PNE (Peaceful Nuclear Explosion) of 1974, which only brought forth upon India sanctions that would technologically cripple the state for decades hence. The nuclear order did not take insubordination well.

For India, the outcomes of this were twofold. Firstly, it set in motion the mantra of indigenous capability that has marked all subsequent technological endeavors (particularly defence-related). This pride, in recent years, has seen itself getting manifested in the successful missile and space programmes. The second and more important outcome was that it reinforced the Indian assertion of an unequal nuclear order, one which it would challenge in its quest for accommodation.

Status has two inherently necessary conditions. One is that of public acknowledgement and a collective understanding of the position of the actor. This is in the realm of public perception. The other is recognition, i.e. recognition from the ‘in-group’ (in this case the nuclear order) of the actor’s status. How has the post-1998 world affected this for India?

The aftermath of the sanctions against India has seen a steady rise in India’s lot in the world. The Civil Nuclear Agreement between India and the United States has had a number of positive results in India’s favour. The NSG waiver probably the most important of them all. The waiver essentially heralded India as a responsible nuclear power, making it possible to conclude not only the nuclear deal with the United States, but also subsequent deals with the French, the Russians, the Australians, and the Canadians. It granted to India a legitimacy that elevated it from the other non-NPT nuclear states.  The notion of a responsible non-signatory of the NPT meant that India was no longer a nuclear outlaw, while maintaining its positions on the CTBT and the NPT.

It’s not just India’s status in the emerging nuclear market that has changed dramatically. The other important implication of this nuclear deal and legitimacy in the world order has been support for India’s bid for permanent membership into the UNSC.  With the US endorsing this claim, in-group recognition was achieved.  Of course, valid counter-arguments for this strategic shift could be India’s economic strength and geopolitical position vis-à-vis China.  The question however is whether these reasons could have been operationalised with India as a pariah nuclear state? Most likely not.

For Pakistan however, status has never quite been a concern. The narrative of nuclear power has in fact been security-centric and one quite diametrically opposite to that of India’s. This is no surprise given that the nuclear programme effectively started in the aftermath of its defeat to India in 1971. The adoption of a no-no-first-use policy and a blurring of the lines between conventional and nuclear forces (to attain ‘full spectrum’ deterrence) definitely augmented Pakistani security, thus serving the purpose of nuclearisation. However, the fallout of this has been an image of irresponsibility and instability in the eyes of the world.

This self-created image which is status-diminishing in the international order has been security-enhancing for Pakistan vis-à-vis India. That India did not cross the LoC in 1999 during the Kargil war is evidence of the fact that Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent was credible concern to Indian policymakers.

This behavior, in accordance to what Nixon called the ‘Madman theory,’ means that India has not known where the Pakistani thresholds lie.  General Khalid Kidwai in 2002 identified four such redlines which could be counted as thresholds-  i. if India attacks and conquers a large part of its territory; ii. if India destroys a large part of its land or air forces; iii. if India proceeds to the economic strangling of Pakistan; iv. if India pushes Pakistan into political destabilisation or creates large scale internal subversion. Kidwai ofcourse distanced himself from this statement later on. However, even if these were taken as guidelines, they are fairly vague.

Be that as it may, this policy of nuclear instability that Pakistan espouses has over the years deterred Indian aggression. It essentially operationalises what S.Paul Kapur calls the ‘instability-instability paradox’. It has emboldened ISI backed operatives to conduct attacks like those in 2001 and 2008 without the fear of retribution. To that extent, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons have definitely been security providers against Indian conventional strength. However, unfortunately for Pakistan, this policy of security maximization is inversely related to status. Its position as a nuclear outlaw is not likely to be watered down or reversed anytime soon, given its nuclear policy.


Image: Three Lions, Getty

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