The nuclear option for India – the strategic game?

Posted on July 3, 2008. Filed under: India, Nuclear, Politics |

The Congress led UPA alliance at power in the centre is under intense pressure to go forward with the nuclear deal with USA on the one hand and risk losing majority in the Parliament under threat of withdrawal of support by the Left. Let us look at this as a two stage strategic game. In the first stage the game is played by players representing involved political parties within India. In the second stage the game is played among international players representing countries and multi-nation alliances. The nuclear option was prominently taken up during Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s prime minister-ship of a Congress regime. However, it was the BJP which accelerated the process. The Left had an ambivalent position towards nuclear power and a clear opposition to nuclear weapons. However, its weakness in electoral impact, limited its relevance to the question. The three major players currently happen to be these same groups, represented by their respective leaders the Congress, the BJP, and the CPI(M). The Congress wants the deal to go forward, the BJP and CPI(M) does not. Possible stated and unstated reasons for the Congress position are (1) access to nulcear fuel and facilities for civilian power plants (2) strategic alliance with the European/Western bloc led by the USA having potential future regional security benefits (3) the deal although initiated and brokered by the BJP should not be allowed to be “repossessed” by the BJP in case it returned to power in the impending parliamentary elections (4) political fallouts both nationally as well as internationally of being seen as a weak political force dependent on the whims of the “Left”. The possible reasons behind BJP ‘s position are (1) the deal claimed to be “insufficient” with the underlying implication that the BJP could do a better job of the negotiation (2) the Congress is trying to hijack its pet initiative (3) by opposing the deal and using the opportunity in case Left withdraws support, to force early elections by voting against the government in a no-confidence motion. The possible reasons behind the Left’s position (1) the public position that this will bring India closer in strategic military alliance with the USA, and not to be allowed from ideological grounds – USA as the “evil capitalist” (2) coincidence with BJP’s contention that the deal limits India’s nuclear military options by limiting “tests” (3) possible fear of a “resurgent” BJP being strengthened or benefiting from supposedly sympathetic Western interests in case this strategic alliance materialized (4) potential fear or hope that Muslim votes would go against any party that supported the deal.

The last point in the list of Left’s possible reasons is a significant one. This week, the Samajbadi Party led by Mulayam Singh, confined mostly to the politically influential state of UP, was warned by the BSP led by Ms. Mayavati, as well as by a top-level leader of the CPI(M), that it could lose Muslim votes if Mulayam Singh toyed with the idea of bailing out the Congress on the floor of the Parliament in case Left withdrew support.

It seems ironic, that with the exception of the BJP, all the parties in this slanging match, are actually doing more damage to the Indian Muslims by presuming to declare Muslim intentions on their behalf. Why should Indian Muslims in particular be against India’s gaining military strength? If they really do, then this will only strengthen BJP’s contention that groups within Indian Islam are “anti-national”. Why should Indian Muslims oppose any alliance with the USA just because USA was supposedly behaving as an enemy of Islam in countries outside the borders of India? If they really do then it can be interpreted as showing real allegiance to foreign countries and putting such countries’ supposed interests above and before that of India. At the other extreme such inclinations could be interpreted as those of a fifth column serving the interests of countries that have territorial designs on India’s borders – countries that have actively waged wars, seized and held onto Indian territory.

At the other end, it shows the psychological insecurity of the Left, the BSP or the Samajwadi party in their possible perception that their vote bank is actually in the periphery or in the minority within Indian society.

At the international stage of the game, the main players would be the USA and its European allies, Russia, China, India and Pakistan. For the USA, with its involvement in the middle east, and on the borders of Pakistan, India is a key potential ally. The suitability of India as an ally is on several counts, (1) it has a large non-Muslim population with a predominant culture that has (although disputed by a section of historians) strong undercurrents of Islamo-phobia, (2) it has a dominant geo-strategic position on the Indian Ocean with depth for naval, land and air operations, (3) a large skilled and higher educated workforce capable of communicating in English (4) a large expatriate professionally successful Indian community in the USA (5) India’s continuing hostile relations with Pakistan and China who have successfully made military claims on Indian territory (6) traditional alliances and strategic links with Russia continuing into the post Communist nationalist phase and therefore deemed less dangerous and potentially useful as both Russia and India face common threats from Islamic separatist and militant movements, (7) India’s borders on the Muslim majority countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh, communist dominated Nepal, China, and the ethnic violence torn Shri Lanka – thereby providing a potential strategic bridgehead for military operations in case of necessity.

For Russia, the considerations are (1) traditional strategic links surviving the fall of USSR (2) a continued market for military hardware and technology (3) historical and continuing strategic importance of an access to the Indian Ocean (4) the delicate balance of interests with China and the latter’s increasing might (5) competition with the USA for influence in the subcontinent.

For China, the possible considerations are (1) elimination of the threat of independent Tibet by doing everything possible to neutralize Dalai Lama sheltered in India (2) increased accessed to the Indian border through a communist regime in Nepal (3) perception of India as a barrier to geo-strategic dominance of the Indian Ocean, (4) India as competitor for the global market (5) delicate balance between supporting regimes in Pakistan and Bangladesh that coincide with Islamic fundamentalist militant activity aimed aagainst India and the possible repurcussions of similar activities developing on its own borders with Central Asian countries having predominantly muslim populations as well as within its own borders to the north-west.

For Pakistan, the reasons are (1) traditional justification of the sole national project of establishing Islamic dominance in the subcontinent (the so-called “trauma of loss of power”) and India seen as the only obstruction (2) a weak economy hampered by feudal retrogressions (3) a nuclear first strike capability and dominance as the only hope of overcoming the technically superior Indian army (4) proximity of India to the USA as neutralization of the strategic interests enjoyed so far by Pakistan with the West.

What is at stake for India ? (1) As for power generation, the impact will be negligible at present, providing around 3% of the total need. However the potential value of cooperation in the area with other established expertise pools could have long term benefits (2) India stands to gain much more, indirectly from any implied strategic alliance with the USA – this brings the foremost military technology and presence capable of global presence and interception within its reach (3) the psychological proximity of the dominant elite in the two countries as regards perception of common threats (4) the need to balance weapons capable China and Pakistan.


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