international analysis and commentary

India’s complex nuclear policy


The Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has had one overriding policy goal in the nuclear field since its election just over two years ago: to bring closure to New Delhi’s policy of bringing itself out of nuclear sanctions and become a full-fledged member of the international nuclear nonproliferation regime. Modi will visit Washington in June largely as part of a last push before the US elections to get India into two of the treaty organizations that make up part of the regime: the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

India had multiple international sanctions imposed on it when it carried out nuclear tests in 1974 and, later, in 1998. New Delhi had long smarted under the sanctions which it saw as inherently unfair. New Delhi had not carried out a nuclear test before the 1967 cut-off date of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as it was wrestling internally over whether a nuclear weapons program was compatible with its early Gandhian foreign policy goals.

It abandoned these ethical considerations once China went nuclear but tested too late to be a recognized nuclear power. The subsequent sanctions were denounced by India as “nuclear apartheid” and were particularly irritating given the poor record of China when it came to proliferation though it was a recognized nuclear power. The NPT was impossible for India to join as it required India to abandon its nuclear weapons arsenal in return for the lifting of sanctions. The ever expanding circle of dual-use technology sanctions that the interlocking nonproliferation agreements– the Wassenar convention, the MTCR, the Australia Group and, topping all of them, the NSG – set up, denied India access to crucial civilian technologies and international reactor investments which led it to have a truncated civilian nuclear program.

As India’s economic growth rate took off after reforms in 1991, the lack of nuclear power and the difficulties that sanctions were imposing on access to even civilian high-end technology began exacting an economic price. Geopolitics provided an opportunity to change this during the George W. Bush administration. Washington, in part because of growing concerns regarding China’s strategic trajectory and because of fears about Islamic terror following 9/11, aggressively began wooing New Delhi as a strategic partner.

After decades of being on opposite sides during the Cold War, however, India demanded a price for this partnership: the end to its nuclear isolation. This was effectively accomplished in 2008, when the so-called Indo-US nuclear deal was completed with the US Congress passing legislation authorizing full-fledged civil nuclear cooperation with India. The US subsequently lobbied the 46-nation NSG to grant India an exemption from technology sanctions.

The deal was a half success for both countries. The Indo-US relationship is now the strongest it has been since the Kennedy years, but the promise of the Bush years has been diluted by isolationist postures of the Obama administration. India’s civil nuclear sector received some benefits, but the passage of a flawed nuclear liability law in 2010 meant both foreign and domestic nuclear component manufacturers steered away from the Indian reactor market. India’s civil nuclear program ironically benefited only marginally from the so-called nuclear deal thanks to its legislative self-goal. However, the lifting of technology sanctions has meant a sharp increase in Indian defense purchases from the US and the West as a whole, as well as a greater ability of Indian firms to acquire sensitive technologies from overseas.

India has in effect three nuclear policies at present. The diplomatically most active policy is to continue to ensure against any future sanctions by becoming a member of these same nonproliferation regimes that it suffered under. In other words, go beyond exemptions to an actual rule-making status. India has been lobbying to get into the NSG and the MTCR as a first step. Though this has been endorsed by the US, individual countries have put up barriers. Italy had opposed India’s joining the MTCR because of its irritation over an unrelated bilateral dispute over the arrest of two Italian marines in a criminal case in India. China and Turkey have run interference to India’s joining the NSG because of their friendship with Pakistan, arguing the latter country should also be allowed to join the NSG.

New Delhi has also pursued bilateral civil nuclear cooperation agreements with key countries, the most notable one being an agreement signed last year with the civilian nuclear sector’s technology leader, Japan. Without Japan’s green light, India was unable to buy imported non-Russian reactors.

A second policy is a vestigial remnant of the original support for global nuclear disarmament that goes back to India’s early pacificist policies, drawn from Mahatma Gandhi and his followers. India remains a supporter of the comprehensive test ban treaty (CTBT) and the more ambitious fissile material cutoff treaty. However, New Delhi has been clear that it will not sign the CTBT until the United States and China both ratify the treaty. However, the Republican-controlled US Congress is hostile to the treaty and refused to ratify it. So it remains in a limbo until Washington ends its own gridlock. The Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty is even further lost in diplomatic doldrums over a host of different issues.

The third nuclear policy is the development of India’s military nuclear arsenal. New Delhi has only announced a bare bones nuclear doctrine, but at its heart is a belief in a small diversified arsenal designed to withstand a first strike by an enemy country. Slowly but steadily India has sought to build a triad – air, land and submarine-based – nuclear deterrent. The last part of this, a set of nuclear armed and powered submarines, has started to come together with the acquisition of a modified Akula class Russian submarine, dubbed in India as “INS Arihant”. The purchase of two more such submarines is under negotiation with Moscow.

India has been careful to avoid an arms race with its nearby nuclear rivals, knowing it could ill afford the economic costs of such escalation and that even the security consequences would be considerable. It has therefore not changed its policy expanding its arsenal at an extremely measured rate, even though China has a much larger nuclear arsenal. Even the fact that in the past few years even Pakistan has probably overtaken India in terms of fissile material stocks has not changed this policy. India is estimated to have a stockpile of 110 to 120 warheads, mated to a set of ballistic missiles with a maximum range of about 5,800km.

Prime Minister Modi has effectively continued the nuclear policies of his predecessors.  He has also been actively pursuing India’s membership in the NSG and MTCR, especially in the past year. Curiously, Modi is doing so even though he has been far less enthusiastic about civilian nuclear power, a cornerstone of Indian energy policy since the 1950s. Modi has been far more interested in a massive expansion of solar and wind power and taking India on a renewable energy path in which reactors only play a marginal role. His interest in nuclear power has seemingly been piqued by his strong personal commitment to fighting climate change and the belated recognition that nuclear remains among the only non-carbon emitting source of baseload power. India also sees itself as a potential manufacturer and exporter of smaller reactors now that its liability issues have been resolved.

Renewed interest in nuclear power because of climate change concerns may become the core of a fourth nuclear policy in the years to come. If Modi is able to secure a contract to buy the first imported reactors to come to India since the 1950s – there are reports of negotiations with Westinghouse Toshiba for six reactors coming close to fruition – this policy will become more credible.

But Modi, as befitting a nationalist right-wing politician, seems to have put the righting of what most Indians perceive as a historical wrong regarding nuclear sanctions at the top of his nuclear wish list for the near future.