India and the NPT After 50 Years
Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi laid the foundation stone for India's fourth nuclear power project in Narora, India on Jan. 1, 1974.
Image Credit: AP Photo

India and the NPT After 50 Years


As the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) turns 50 this summer, so will India’s refusal to accede to the Treaty on grounds that it is a biased legal instrument that divided the world into “nuclear haves” and “nuclear have-nots.” The year 2018 also commemorates 20 years since India’s five nuclear tests in May 1998, and 10 years since the 2008 congressional approval of the U.S.-India 123 agreement, also called the U.S.–India Civil Nuclear Agreement.

Much has been written on whether India “had it easy,” unlike other countries that developed nuclear weapons outside the five nuclear weapon states under the NPT. For those who remember, such arguments were plentiful and pervasive in the United States in 2008 when the U.S.-India 123 agreement needed congressional approval, and more recently, in opposition to the India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). It is an opportune moment, therefore, to understand the significance of this Treaty in terms of India’s supposed “special relationship” with it. Why did India not sign the NPT in 1968? What immediate and subsequent impact did that have on the NPT? What role did security interests, domestic politics and prestige play in India’s decision?

First, India’s decision to not join the NPT needs to be understood in the context of decisions taken by countries that chose to sign and ratify the NPT. Today, India is one of the only five countries that either did not sign the NPT or signed but withdrew, thus becoming part of a list that includes Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, and South Sudan. This might make New Delhi seem like an outlier but persuading and/or coercing sovereign states to be part of the NPT was a Herculean effort for U.S. policymakers with no clear guarantee of success. This is because the “grand bargain” of the treaty — enshrined in Articles II and IV — requires countries to give up any present or future plans to build nuclear weapons in return for access to peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

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For major powers like Japan and West Germany — the two key countries that both superpowers wanted to accede to the Treaty — this was not easily accomplished. Domestic political coalitions did not come out overwhelmingly in support of the NPT in Tokyo and Bonn. Moreover, with the refusal of France to sign the Treaty, smaller West European countries like Italy and Switzerland exploited the opportunity to cause delays in reaching a final decision on whether to be part of the NPT. In other words, between 1968 and 1975-76, the fate of the NPT was far from certain: Would the key countries sign the Treaty? Would the signatories actually ratify the Treaty? What could the superpowers do to persuade or possibly coerce countries to accede to the Treaty? The situation was unpredictable. India’s decision to not sign the Treaty stood out because the refusal came from a nonaligned developing country dependent on superpowers for economic, technological, and military aid.

Second, it is worth exploring a counterfactual question: without India’s underground nuclear explosion in May 1974, how likely is it that the Watergate-smeared Nixon administration and subsequently the Ford administration would have done much to reinforce the NPT? The Nixon/Ford administrations did that in two key ways: first, the formation of a nuclear exporters’ grouping irrespective of NPT membership (later known as the NSG), and second, persuading as many countries as possible to sign and ratify the Treaty. The goal was to ensure that the 1975 NPT Review Conference saved face for the United States and the incipient nonproliferation regime. Without the Indian explosion, it is improbable that a realpolitik-driven Nixon-Kissinger team, which was preoccupied with redrawing the terrain of the Cold War international system through a rapprochement with Beijing and détente with Moscow, would have spent much diplomatic capital on the global ratification of the NPT. This is not to claim that the Nixon administration was uncommitted to nonproliferation but instead it is to argue that without the 1974 Indian test, the administration might not have undertaken tangible actions toward nonproliferation notwithstanding an overarching and general commitment. The 1974 Indian nuclear explosion, therefore, inadvertently strengthened the NPT and the fledgling nonproliferation regime — the global atomic marketplace needed to be regulated such that “another India” could be prevented at all costs.

Third and finally, in order to understand India’s decision to not sign the NPT in 1968, the 1974 Indian nuclear explosion codenamed the “Smiling Buddha” needs to be foregrounded. The 1974 explosion is one of the most misunderstood and perhaps misrepresented events in India’s nuclear history. New Delhi called it a “peaceful nuclear explosion” (PNE), indicating that it was an experiment to investigate civilian uses of nuclear explosions, for example the construction of harbors or oil exploration — even though PNEs are technically indistinguishable from a nuclear weapon test. More importantly, no crash program was launched to develop delivery vehicles, thereby befuddling security experts in Washington and elsewhere, who were used to expecting a swift linear movement from nuclear testing to further testing to the development of precise or near-precise delivery systems. In the absence of an extensive resource allocation for nuclear weapons delivery systems, security experts and scholars shied away (and still continue to do so) from a security-based explanation to analyze the “Smiling Buddha.”

Perceived security threats from Pakistan and Pakistan’s ally China, on the one hand, and from the United States, on the other (U.S. inaction in 1965 war and active support for Pakistan in the 1971 war are cases in point) provide a strong security-driven rationale for the 1974 PNE. Security threats are not always existential necessitating an immediate response, like a crash program on missiles, or a massive allocation of resources for military ends. This is more so in resource-scarce democracies where non-military needs are more often pressing and public support for high-cost military projects are low. Hence, policymakers need to prioritize effectively and act accordingly.

The demonstration of a nuclear weapons capability in the 1974 explosion guaranteed New Delhi’s ability to effectively hedge in an asymmetric international system, and a regional strategic environment where New Delhi felt largely cornered. Moscow’s extension of “friendship” was helpful for New Delhi to balance Washington and Beijing but the fear of a Brezhnev doctrine for Asia loomed large in the background. In other words, Indian policymakers grappled with how to effectively use Moscow’s support for New Delhi without losing its autonomy and freedom of action. A nuclear explosion that was unforeseen by both the superpowers was an effective means to accomplish this.

Maintaining a degree of political autonomy has driven independent India’s foreign policy choices. Major decisions that New Delhi took in the nuclear realm are representative of that. The grand bargain of NPT — Article II for Article IV — was certainly going to restrict India’s policy options. Given the security environment at the international and regional levels, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her advisers could not consent to it.

Domestic political imperatives dictated the timing and the rhetoric: the 1974 explosion amidst plummeting popularity of Indira Gandhi, and the public claim of a “peaceful nuclear explosion.” Prestige explained how New Delhi’s actions were not a violation of pre-existing legal instruments that the country was already party to. The multi-capital tour that Indian policymakers conducted requesting nuclear security guarantees prior to the refusal to sign the NPT served the purpose of generating public support for the government decision. But the quest for freedom of action in an uncertain regional strategic environment and an asymmetric international system dominated by superpowers and China drove India to not sign the NPT and hedge, and to conduct the 1974 test.

Jayita Sarkar is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Boston University, a US Foreign Policy and International Security Fellow at Dartmouth College for 2018-19, and a nonresident fellow with the Stimson Center’s South Asia Program.

Sumit Ganguly is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Indiana University Bloomington and an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow for 2018´-2019 at the University of Heidelberg.

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