Is it Obvious Why India Cares About Nuclear Weapons?

Was India looking for prestige? Was it looking for security? What about both?

Is it Obvious Why India Cares About Nuclear Weapons?
Credit: Antônio Milena via Wikimedia Commons

Do states acquire weapons because of security needs or out of a desire for prestige? Analysts have asked this question about a wide range of weapons, including advanced fighter jets, nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers, battleships, and (perhaps most importantly) nuclear weapons. On the prestige side, nuclear weapons convey modernity, power, and a spot in the “room where it happens”–particularly prestigious because the room only holds a few countries. On the security side, nuclear weapons can provide a last ditch alternative against a superior foe.

The question of weapons and prestige has bedeviled political scientists and the answer seems to be: “Both, but more of one or the other under particular circumstances.” Recent work by Jayita Sarkar (reviewed by Sumit Ganguly) helps contribute to this question, at least in the context of India’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Sarkar argues that recent documentary evidence supports a security-oriented explanation for the Indian nuclear weapons program. Indian nuclear insecurity, and in particular, the detonation of a Chinese hydrogen device in 1967, convinced India that it could not defend against the PLA without the assistance of nuclear weapons. India’s commitment to non-alignment made the country particularly vulnerable, as it could not depend on either a Soviet or a U.S. nuclear guarantee.

Sarkar’s research appears compelling with respect to the arguments that carried the day in Indian national security debates. However, documents may not tell the entire story. In particular, we need to wonder how precisely the causal mechanism of “prestige” functions. It may be that prestige concerns operate primarily as a means of distinguishing between different security-based arguments. “We need nukes because China has nukes” works on two levels: as a security concern and as an evaluation of national pride and civilizational capacity. In such a case, it would be difficult to distinguish between arguments that carried the day because of purely security concerns and arguments that won because of a synergistic combination of military and prestige concerns.

To give another example, India has pursued carrier aviation for much longer than China, despite somewhat similar economic and security conditions. The reasons for this are manifold, but may stem in part from the ancestry of the Indian Navy; it is the offspring of the Royal Navy, and as such carries an appreciation of impressive capital ships within its DNA. China’s PLA Navy draws its naval heritage from much different sources, making the aircraft carrier less relevant as a vehicle for national prestige. Whether these differences would manifest in documentary statements, rather than in difficult-to-observe mindsets, is hard to say, however.

In any case, India is surely sensitive to its status as a nuclear power. The Indian nuclear deterrent now serves not only as a deterrent to China, but also as a check on Pakistan. But just as Chinese nukes spurred the Indian program, India’s nuclear weapons made it difficult for Pakistan to do anything but follow suit.