My essay in The Friday Times: Nuclear power for a nuclear power

Civilian motivations, geopolitical implications

The debate over the India-US nuclear deal in the Indian parliament was interesting, controversial and had its dramatic moments. And though it was lost on the members of parliament, there was deep irony too. For the parliament was debating the virtues of a deal that could add to India’s power generation capacity when a large number of Indian citizens could not watch the debate live on television because of power-cuts and load-shedding.

Indeed, even without full electrification, supply has fallen short of demand by around 8 percent. In fact, during peak periods, the shortage has grown from 12.2 percent in 2002-03 to about 16.6 percent in 2007-08. More than power generation targets for 2030 (some 950GW, compared to 145 GW today) the today’s ever more frequent power cuts bring home the reality that India could do with more power, whether thermal, solar or nuclear. Indeed, it is this realisation that underpins the strategic rationale for the India-US nuclear deal. It does have geopolitical implications—those are inescapable in a deal of this nature—but if India was merely interested in increasing its nuclear arsenal it need not have gone in for this deal at all.

The nuclear deal represents a conscious decision by India to move to a different balance in the trade-off between its nuclear weapons capability and the needs of its growing economy. Some hardline strategists have argued that nothing must be allowed to come in the way of India’s development of more nuclear weapons. Now, nuclear weapons will remain rather powerful guarantors of survival and security well into the conceivable future. But mere ownership of nuclear weapons without broad, comprehensive national power is counterproductive.

So it really is a question of to what extent India should pursue development of nuclear weapons given the costs. That’s where the minimum credible deterrent comes in—it is, in other words, the smallest quantity of nuclear weapons necessary to ensure that India’s strategic adversaries take it seriously enough not to launch an attack.

Yet deterrence is not a static concept—it has to evolve with the changes in the strategic landscape as well as the arsenals of the other nuclear powers. Does the deal prevent India from increasing the stockpile of fissile material for new warheads? It doesn’t, for India can use its domestic uranium for its weapons programme. But what if India has to conduct additional explosive tests to build a new generation of warheads: thermonuclear and low-yield weapons, for instance. Won’t the deal make it very difficult? Yes, but only marginally. India’s self-imposed unilateral moratorium on testing is sanctimonious to an extent. In reality, the geopolitical and economic costs of testing unilaterally outweigh any benefits that might accrue to improving India’s deterrence posture. But this calculation will change materially if India were to test in response to a Chinese, Pakistani or perhaps even an Iranian test.

So while hardliners can certainly find fault with the deal for straying from the maximalist prescription, there is sufficient room for India to dynamically maintain the regional nuclear balance. In the absence of a destabilising move by China or Pakistan, it is unlikely that the nuclear deal will cause India to upset the balance.

Even as India’s entry into the international nuclear mainstream shatters many dogmatic beliefs on nuclear non-proliferation, it marks, nevertheless a new opportunity to move towards universal nuclear disarmament. This can be gleaned from India’s positive response to the proposals put forth by Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn earlier this year. Pointing out that their initiative was consistent with Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 action plan, Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee noted that “as a responsible nuclear weapon power, India is ready to play its part in the process leading to global, non-discriminatory and verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons.”

Even if the goal of complete disarmament remains, at best, a distant vision, moving in its direction could pay rich dividends in terms of reducing contemporary nuclear risks. These include adoption of no first use policies, reduction in the number of warheads and placing the readiness posture on lower levels of alert.

From a geopolitical perspective, the deal does strengthen bilateral relations between India and the United States by removing a longstanding irritant. But it would be an overstatement to attribute the drawing together of the two to this deal. Rather, the deal is the result of a greater congruence of interests of the two nations over the last decade. But neither India’s polity nor its interests indicate a tight alliance between the two, at least not of the kind that the United States is accustomed to. Even so, the improvement in relations between the two countries will be positive for the subcontinent. As President Zardari noted “Why would (Pakistan) begrudge the largest democracy in the world getting friendly with one of the oldest democracy?”

The deal was pronounced dead several times during its steeplechase through the democratic systems of the two countries. Yet it survived. But it may well be that the biggest challenges will emerge after it moves from the relatively rarified domain of foreign policy into the messy, beauraucratic world of India’s decentralised power sector.

This is a version of my essay that appears in Pakistan’s The Friday Times today.

8 thoughts on “My essay in The Friday Times: Nuclear power for a nuclear power”

  1. Hello Nitin, great title. You could give those subs and eds in big-ticket publications a run for their money.

    But we have been through this energy-requirement argument before, and it was pointed out that nuclear power will not address any significant percentage of our needs in the coming two decades.

  2. Nice essay, Nitin.

    As you pointed out, there is a huge gap between signing the deal and getting power to watch TV. We shall see !

    I am also not so confident about the “minimal deterrence” theory. Will it work with Pakistan / Jihadists ? Maybe all they want is a “X + 1” theory. If they have warheads more numerous and more proven and better delivery systems – would that be it for them. Will we be stuck with low yield unproven duds without more tests ? What is the price to pay for this ?

    But I hope you are right 🙂

  3. “But what if India has to conduct additional explosive tests to build a new generation of warheads: thermonuclear and low-yield weapons, for instance.”

    We don’t even have any old generation of warheads that we can rely on, nor a compatible delivery system. How do you rely on a minimal credible deterrence when it doesn’t exists? Forget quibbling about the numbers whether they’re credible and minimal or not, there’s no reliable delivery system under deployment, nor a big enough bomb that can reliably counter Chinese threat without putting Beijing or Shanghai in our reach.

    And how do you build such a weapon if you sign on a treaty that bars any such move? Looking at our past experience won’t you say it is quite rationale to suspect mere assurances of credible minimal deterrence?

  4. @Nitin,

    your article refers to peak power shortage faced by India to be around 16.6%. Is it on the installed capacity or on the total power available for consumption.I hope you are not assuming that the 145 gw is the power generation capacity ,you may be heading in the wrong direction if you base your assumption on that.

    secondly there cannot be any trade of between economic requirements and security in todays global geopolitical scenario. it has to go in tandem with each other.If anything that the parliamentary process on the nuclear deal reflected, it was about failure of democratic politics in the largest democratic nation in the world.that is anything but interesting.

    by the way, just being inquisitive,is the cover photo on the Pragati ,India’s National Interest magazine, from across the atlantic.

  5. @Ghana,

    Re economics and security going hand in hand in today’s scenario. Dude, when have they not? Unless, of course, you are a jarnail from acraas the baarder, this should be obvious.

    As is the trade-off. There was, is and will be a trade-off. Because they go hand in hand.

  6. Ghana shyam,

    I cite figures found in the Ministry of Power website. In any case, as I write, “shortages” are not meaningful in the absence of full electrification. Or rather, the real shortage is the stated shortage (8% or 16% or whatever) plus the percentage of the population/economy that has no access to electricity.

  7. Ghana shyam,

    by the way, just being inquisitive,is the cover photo on the Pragati ,India’s National Interest magazine, from across the atlantic.

    Yes.

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