The West’s feeble response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted Shekhar Gupta to write this piece the sum of substance of which is that we should laud India’s political leadership – across parties – for pursuing India’s nuclear agenda over the past 40 years. In a world where the West’s assurances of protection and civility are increasingly meaningless, had India not become a nuclear power, it would have been staring the wrong end of the barrel in its extended face-off with China: “…..would it have been so simple for Putin’s Russia to crush Zelenskyy’s Ukraine if it hadn’t given up its nuclear stockpile after the Budapest accord in 1994.
This was done in return for security guarantees by the US, Europe and Russia. One of the guarantors has now invaded Ukraine; one, Europe, is looking for a place to hide and ruing its possible loss of cheap gas; and the third, the US, is doing no more than pour tender love and care. Would Ukraine be such a pushover if it had that stockpile?
Now, let’s turn this question inwards at ourselves. Was India prescient or imprudent to not only build nuclear weapons but to declare itself a nuclear-armed state?…
Ukraine now has become an enduring advertisement for the WMD-sovereignty link. It is making many nations, comfortable today in the aura of guarantees, uncomfortable. Surely, no country with the nukes now, or one that’s nearly there — North Korea, Israel, Iran or any other — will ever give these up. They will remember Ukraine…”
Shekhar then narrates the story of how India went nuclear in the late 1980s: “In the 1990-91 stand-off, Pakistan had also employed the nuclear blackmail against India. It is something books have been written about (Bob Winderm and William Burrows, Critical Mass: The dangerous race for super weapons in a fragmenting world), then-CIA deputy chief Robert Gates has spoken about it…
But, the Pakistani threat, which Robert Gates also brought to India from Islamabad on his conflict resolution visit, was that they will use the nukes in the beginning of the war. The reality dawned on V.P. Singh’s government that India did not have an immediately deliverable weapon in retaliation. Over the decades, proven capability had not been developed into a credible weapon and delivery systems.
That crisis passed, but this had ended any doubts across our political spectrum, with all its divisions, that India needed the weapons fast.
Eighteen March 1989 is a significant day in Indian strategic evolution. Intelligence reports were now confirming that Pakistan was indeed a screwdriver’s turn away from a deliverable bomb. On this day, the IAF was holding it customary firepower demonstration, this one involving 129 aircraft, at Tilpat, a firing range not far from Delhi. At the demonstration, Rajiv gestured to top civil servant Naresh Chandra to follow him into a tent. He was so secretive he even shook off a curious Rajesh Pilot, then a minister. There, he told Chandra of his concern and assigned him to head an elite group, mostly of scientists, to take India to full weaponization…
The group included top nuclear scientists R. Chidambaram, P.K. Iyengar, Anil Kakodkar, K. ‘Santy’ Santhanam, missile specialist A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and then-DRDO chief V.S. Arunachalam. They were to be funded mostly covertly out of a fund for “science and technology” under the Planning Commission….
That baton passed brilliantly between seven prime ministers across a decade of political instability. And in 1998, Pokhran-2 happened, followed by Pakistan’s tit-for-tat in Chagai. Two decades after that, where did the two new nuclear powers stand? India mostly accepted as a legitimate nuclear weapons power, admitted to most multilateral arrangements, rid of all the sanctions and an American strategic ally. And Pakistan? It wasn’t such a bad idea to open the cupboard then.”
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