After BJP Election Win, Leaders Soften Line on Nuclear Weapons

March 1998

By Howard Diamond

Since winning India's parliamentary elections on March 3, the leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have toned down their party's pro-nuclear weapon rhetoric, suggesting New Delhi's nuclear policy may not change as drastically or as quickly as was intimated during the campaign. Prior to the election, the Hindu-nationalist BJP pledged to "exercise [India's] option to induct nuclear weapons" and proceed with development of ballistic missiles.

The BJP has formed a governing coalition with several small regional parties, and on March 18 BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee unveiled the coalition's "National Agenda" and discussed the future of India's nuclear policy. "We will exercise all options, including nuclear options," he said, but "there is no time-frame, we are keeping the option open. If need be that option will be exercised." Vajpayee took office as prime minister on March 19 and his government survived an initial vote of confidence on March 28.

India is an "undeclared" nuclear-weapon state because it is believed to have nuclear weapons or the ability to assemble them on short notice, though it has not declared this capability. Declining to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) for security and ideological reasons and fearing China's nuclear arsenal, India conducted a "peaceful nuclear explosion" in 1974. Despite rival Pakistan's development of nuclear capabilities in the 1980s, the two so-called "threshold" states have so far not permanently deployed nuclear weapons.

The election of the BJP-led government prompted Pakistan to indicate its readiness to match any Indian move. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the leader of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program said March 17, "There will be an appropriate response if India conducts a nuclear test." Two days later, at the Geneva Conference on Disarmament, Pakistani Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub Khan warned that "South Asia may be pushed into a dangerous arms race" should India "go nuclear."

Both states are developing short- and medium-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Of particular concern in the region is the status of New Delhi's medium-range Agni missile, a so-called "technology demonstration project" whose future remains uncertain. The Agni, a 2,000-kilometer system with a 1,000 kilogram payload, has been flight tested three times, most ecently in 1994. The new Indian defense minister, George Fernandes, said on March 20 that Agni flight testing would resume if necessary.

On March 16, the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, quoting a "highly placed source," reported that Islamabad had canceled a scheduled test of its new 1,500-kilometer medium-range Ghauri missile due to "intense U.S. pressure." However, on March 22, The Sunday Times of London cited a Pakistani source saying, "There is no question of Pakistan backing down on the missile questionthe test will go ahead whatever the cost for relations with the West."

In late May or early June 1997, apparent Indian deployment of its 150-kilometer range Prithvi missile near Pakistan's border resulted in a series of tit-for-tat missile activities. Low-key diplomacy by the Clinton administration is believed to have induced both sides to show restraint. The missile confrontation came oddly in the midst of positive talks between New Delhi and Islamabad which brought hope of improved relations. Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers held three rounds of talks on bilateral security issues between February and September, 1997, when disagreements on the modalities for discussions led to deadlock.

Signs of Moderation

Vajpayee's remarks on March 18, suggesting a less aggressive posture on the nuclear issue, were quickly reinforced by the defense minister on March 19. In an interview on Indian state television, Fernandes was circumspect, saying, "[A]mong all the necessary steps that we will take, if necessary, we may have to exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons." Fernandes also called for establishment of a National Security Council to conduct India's first-ever strategic review.

Additionally, Vajpayee and Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif have exchanged letters expressing interest in developing better relations and resuming bilateral talks. Congratulating Vajpayee on his victory, Sharif's letter of March 20 urged the two sides to renew their dialogue on "all the outstanding issues between our countries," and promised "to go the extra mile" in pursuit of a "durable peace." Vajpayee responded in a similar fashion two days later on Indian television, saying, "Whenever there is the slightest opportunity to improve our relations with Islamabad, my government will go the extra mile."

A delegation of U.S. officials including UN Ambassador Bill Richardson, Assistant Secretary of State Karl Inderfurth and National Security Council Senior Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs Bruce Riedel are going to South Asia in mid-April to meet with the new Indian government as well as other South Asian states. When asked about the new Indian government's position on the nuclear issue, a State Department official said Vajpayee's remarks are "similar to the previous government's position" and there may be "nothing new" in Indian policy.

The Clinton administration initiated a "strategic dialogue" with India last Fall, with visits to New Delhi by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in November and Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering in October. The U.S.-Indian discussions have focused on the nuclear issue and non-proliferation.