Power, Conservatism And India’s Nuclear Disarmament Policy – Analysis


By Yogesh Joshi

The clamour for India to do more on nuclear disarmament can be heard all around. Recently, a big event was hosted at Vigyan Bhawan to re-launch the idea of the Rajiv Gandhi action plan on the global stage. The fact that the Indian External Affairs Minister and the National Security Adviser were in attendance points to the not-so-trifle character of the event. However, this has not been a stand-alone event; there is a general consensus among various think tanks that India should assume a proactive stand on nuclear disarmament. But why when the world is sleeping over disarmament Indian foreign policy analysts are getting so passionate about it?


May be it is the August phenomenon; commemorating the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has always been taken extremely seriously in India. Or may be, foreign policy analysis in India is suffering from two major problems. The first is making unnecessary necessities out of virtues. And second, a more methodological problem, is the tendency to prescribe rather than explain India’s foreign policy.

Coming to the second problem first, foreign policy analysis in India has turned overly normative in the recent past. There is a lot of emphasis on prescribing policy rather than explaining it. This tendency partly emanates from the disciplinary requirements of policy studies, and partly from the rise of India which has now given an impression that it can actually change the course of international politics. However, in this mad race to answer the second order question (what foreign policy should be) the first order question (what Indian foreign policy is) is often neglected. The result is a flurry of opinions that rue the lost opportunities by decision-makers to redirect foreign policy in a more ideal direction. A quintessential example in this regard is a recent commentary that appeared on the website of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. The commentary’s basic argument was that India is involving itself in double-speak over nuclear disarmament.1 There is very little on the ground that India has done in the recent past for the cause. However, instead of getting into the question of why India has done so, the article ends by just listing the problem and showing concern about the loss of India’s leadership on the issue. The reasons for reluctance still escape the required causal analysis. Another example is a recent essay on Indian foreign policy that describes India’s nuclear policy as a shift from ‘apartheid to apathy’.2 Clearly, there is a normative point being made; the fact that India is growing increasingly indifferent to one of its core foreign policy agenda – nuclear disarmament. Again, the problem gets listed – if at all it is the problem – and its symptoms are described but not its cause.

Apart from this serious methodological problem, there is also a more substantive problem that confronts foreign policy analysis today: how to combine India’s growing power with its ideological moorings? The answer, at least, when it comes to nuclear disarmament, is rather strange: conversion of virtues associated with a world free of nuclear weapons into a categorical imperative for Indian foreign policy. Why so? Because, now, having gone nuclear and given the meteoric rise in its global profile, India has come to possess the necessary wherewithal to carry forward its virtuous foreign policy agenda. The fact that nuclear disarmament is of Nehru vintage, rather than making us pause and reflect both on its necessity as well as desirability, further prods the foreign policy community to make such appeals for India’s leadership on nuclear disarmament.

However, the Nehruvian era was much more practically guided compared to the clamour that one witnesses presently. Nehru made virtues out of necessity; the necessity to secure India’s interests in a world being run on the principle that ‘might is right’ and nuclear weapons being its most potent manifestation, could only be achieved through disarmament particularly when technology and resources were at a premium. Such a strategy had its own strengths. It increased India’s profile on the global stage even when it didn’t possess the traditional elements of influence in international relations. But most importantly, it allowed India to pursue its vital national interests – national security in a nuclearised environment – in the most effective way. As the situation on the security front worsened, one can easily observe that necessities of national security trumped the virtues of global nuclear disarmament. Rhetoric notwithstanding, since 1964, India’s actions conclusively point in this direction.

Given the fact that there is a lot of noise being made to prod India into doing more on nuclear disarmament counter-intuitively suggests that India is actually doing very less on the issue. What explains India’s reluctance then is the real question, for before prescribing alternatives, one should analyse the causes of the current situation. The answer lies in the dynamics of power. Accretion of power is one of the fundamental drivers of state behaviour. Whereas for traditional realists like Morgenthau, power became an end in itself; later realists like Kenneth Waltz saw in power a mechanism to achieve the most basic necessity of states: their quest for survival in an anarchic environment.

However, what realist canon also suggests is the essentially conservative nature which the accretion of power engenders. Being powerful not only means being able to influence others but it is also characterised by a more distinct characteristic: the inherent tendency to hold on to the instruments of power. Conservatism is an automatic accompaniment of power. This effect is further aggravated by the essential nature of international relations which exists in a realm of anxiety and emergencies. Nowhere should John Maynard Keynes observation – ‘in the long run we are all dead’ – apply more appropriately than in the conduct of international relations. Buttressed by the anarchical character of international relations, tyranny of immediate interests always trumps the logic of long-term benevolence.

It is not unbeknownst to the Indian mind that within a decade of the conduct of nuclear tests, the world’s nuclear gatekeeper offered India a nuclear deal. But if power begets power, it also begets conservatism. As states rise in the global ladder, changes take place in their interests, identities and what is expected out of them by the other power elites. Socialisation takes place through class-consciousness; yes, Marx’s insights are still valuable to international relations if seen in the proper context. India has been slowly socialised into the pattern where non-proliferation – the euphemism for exceptionalism of the nuclear capable states – is effectuated, to use the words of Anne Harrington, by an ‘incredible pledge to disarm’.3 The most important evidence in this regard is the Indian somersault on the NPT. India was the most virulent critic of the treaty until it conducted its own nuclear tests; since then it is one of its most avid supporters. India now, as many enthusiasts in academia and policy circles argue, should be accommodated as a Nuclear Weapon State in the NPT. Clearly, if the nuclear elite of the world are fine with their nuclear weapons insofar others don’t have it – a classic case of power conservatism – India has also come to be socialised into this nuclear elitism.

Nuclear disarmament, as a policy issue, will therefore remain a virtue but is not going to acquire great importance for India’s foreign policy. The fact that India has hardly spent its diplomatic capital on finding new ways to nuclear disarmament in the last decade or so, even when the legacies of the Rajiv Gandhi action plan are a cause celebre for the incumbent government, further underscores the concept of power conservatism among nuclear weapon states, including India.

1. P.R. Chari, (2012), “India: Double Speak on Nuclear Disarmament”, available at http://www.ipcs.org/article/india/india-double-speak-on-nuclear-disarmament-3711.html.
2. Vineet Thakur, (2012), “Indian Foreign Policy”, in Siddharth Mallavarapu and B.S. Chimni, (eds.) International Relations: Perspectives From Global South, Pearson: Delhi, p. 49.
3. Anne Harrington, (2011), “The Strategy of Nonproliferation: Maintaining the Credibility of an Incredible Pledge to Disarm”, Millennium Journal of International Studies, 40(1): 3-19.

Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/PowerConservatismandIndiasNuclearDisarmamentPolicy_yjoshi_050912

Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)

The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) was formerly named The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

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