India's Nuclear Blunder

The bomb doesn't offer much against China, and driving Pakistan to arm itself left New Delhi with less freedom of action.

It’s fashionable in Western security circles to proclaim that nuclear weapons never make a state more secure. This is hogwash. Nuclear weapons, more so than any other single factor, are why Western Europeans don’t speak Russian. Similarly, it is inconceivable that India would not have responded militarily to the 2008 Mumbai attack if Pakistan did not have a nuclear arsenal, just as it is inconceivable that the United States would’ve invaded Iraq in 2003 if Saddam Hussein had built the bomb.

But just because nuclear weapons can solve some security problems, doesn’t mean that a nuclear-armed state enjoys total security. Like any other military capability, nuclear weapons are particularly well suited for some contingencies, and particularly ill-suited for others.

Not surprisingly, given the amount of time and resources involved in building a nuclear weapon, most states that have acquired them had compelling reasons to do so. There are exceptions to this, however. One particularly obvious example is South Africa, which—under the apartheid government—built a small nuclear arsenal in an apparent attempt to coerce its former Western allies to intervene on its behalf against a security threat it struggled to define.

But South Africa is just the most bizarre example. Indeed, it has become exceedingly clear that India’s decision to acquire nuclear weapons was a strategic blunder. Unlike their South African counterparts, Indian leaders built the bomb with a very specific security threat in mind. Unfortunately, nuclear weapons have proven ill-suited for addressing that security threat, while India’s pursuit of atomic weaponry has opened up new challenges that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.

Although a number of domestic and ideational factors were essential to India’s success in building nuclear weapons, China was the initial impetus behind the decision to pursue them.

Specifically, it was the PLA’s swift rout of Indian military forces in the 1962 border war and its nuclear test two years later that provided the initial rationale for India’s decision to militarize its nuclear program. Little had changed over three decades later when India carried out its first “nonpeaceful” nuclear tests in 1998. In explaining his decision to order those tests in a letter to Bill Clinton, Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee wrote just days after the tests:

I have been deeply concerned at the deteriorating security environment, specially the nuclear environment, faced by India for some years past. We have an overt nuclear weapon state on our borders, a state which committed armed aggression against India in 1962. Although our relations with that country have improved in the last decade or so, an atmosphere of distrust persists mainly due to the unresolved border problem.

Indeed, the 1962 border war fundamentally changed India’s approach to foreign policy. Before the war, India under Jawaharlal Nehru pursued an idealistic foreign policy that prioritized the non-aligned movement and third-world solidarity. Nehru’s China policy was especially friendly, as summed up by the slogan “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai” or “Indians and Chinese are brothers.” These were not empty words; Nehru took a number of notable actions to win over Maoist China. For example, Delhi boycotted the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951 in protest of the decision to not give Taiwan back to China. Nehru also acquiesced to China asserting its dominance over Tibet in the first half of the 1950s.

China’s attack on India in 1962 was therefore particularly humiliating to Nehru, and significantly undermined his legacy on foreign policy matters. A few days after the war commenced, Nehru himself would tell Parliament of the pre-war era: “We were getting out of touch with reality in the modern world and we were living in an artificial atmosphere of our own creation.” He passed away less than two years later, “‘broken’ by China’s betrayal,” as some have put it. Two years after Nehru’s death, his daughter Indira Gandhi took over the premiership, and in doing so ushered in a more pragmatic era in Indian foreign affairs.

Even before then, in the immediate aftermath of the war, India took concrete steps to strengthen its security. For example, in February 1963 parliament decided to double the 1963-1964 defense budget; that year defense made up 28 percent of the national budget compared to just 15 percent earlier in the decade. Furthermore, the following year India unveiled a five-year plan for national defense that called for once again doubling spending by 1969.

Two years after India’s humiliating loss in the 1962 border war China tested its first nuclear weapon. This sent shock waves throughout India’s elites. Shortly after the test, for instance, Homi J. Bhabha—the father of India’s nuclear program—told the nation, “With the help of nuclear weapons…a state can acquire what we may call a position of absolute deterrence even against another having a many times greater destructive power under its control.”