For most of the world, the timeline of India's nuclear development stops rather abruptly in May 1998. At that time, a nuclear India could not exist according to the rules governing the world's nuclear-capable countries; after its nuclear tests, ironically, most of the world regarded India as if it never became a nuclear power. Relative peace on the South Asian subcontinent, awareness of a clandestine nuclear bazaar, and tectonic shifts in the global security paradigm create a unique convergence of politics, technology, and history.
The genesis of the current dilemma stretches back to the signing of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968. Its framers envisaged only two categories of nations - nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states. This simple, inelegant distinction lacked the ability to manage countries' nuclear aspirations. One hundred and eighty-eight countries subscribed to this dichotomous regime.
But a handful of holdouts, among them India, questioned the provisions on which the NPT rested. In particular, India objected to the treaty's discriminatory nature - dividing the world between the "nuclear-haves" and "nuclear-have-nots" - and the tradeoff between the civilian versus military uses of nuclear energy. India's protest protected its own nuclear potential. When the "nuclear-not-yets" became "nuclear-haves", they challenged the NPT's classification system.
The declared nuclear countries of the world hoped and, heretofore, assumed that India's program might be reversed - quietly but eventually. India never has nor had any intention of turning the stub of its self-issued ticket into the nuclear club, which views India's program as "counterfeit" and thus inadmissible. Simply, those within the NPT will not accept the "outliers" as nuclear-weapon states but only as non-nuclear-weapon states, while those outside the NPT will not roll back their nuclear arsenals.
Because the nonproliferation regime ignored the outliers' existence, the NPT has weakened. According to the treaty, these outliers fit neither of the two prescribed categories of signatories. What to do with the "new" nuclear powers? Neither nuclear nor non-nuclear weapons states considered this question "urgent", even if it was "important". The attacks of September 11, 2001, and the discovery of Abdul Qadeer Khan's nuclear salesmanship in Pakistan transformed national priorities. Both of these events seemed to affect Pakistan more than India, which is why India must pay attention to them.
Pakistan and India can but will not be hyphenated. Pakistan counterbalances India as a nuclear outlier. India maintains that it has behaved responsibly - "as if" it were a signatory to the NPT. Unlike Pakistan, India's nuclear technology has remained within its borders, as a non-transferable commodity. Further, India's nuclear infrastructure has a different history and future than Pakistan's. India's commitment to nonproliferation is the key to its authorized admission to the nuclear club, despite the present structure of the nonproliferation regime.
This dilemma underlies US-India relations on the nuclear issue and redraws the India-US-Pakistan triangle. Specifically, India must reconcile its approach to nonproliferation with noncompliance with the nuclear policy of US President George W Bush. In addition to strengthening the relevance of nuclear arsenals to foreign policy formulation, the Bush administration celebrates nuclear technology while urging other countries, particularly India, to dismantle its nuclear program. One might actually fall for the hypocrisy if one believed that India-US cooperation in the civilian nuclear sector would come to fruition, despite the two countries differing on their nuclear identities and disagreeing on their commitments to nonproliferation and disarmament. The resolution of this dilemma does not lie with India joining the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a US-led counter-proliferation policy aimed at curtailing the illicit trafficking of weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems. The PSI abounds with questions of legality and disintegrates under matters of implementation.
The month-long NPT review conference, which began on May 2, provides an opportunity to release the "trapped" discussion about India's nuclear program, though this window will only open briefly. A relevant dialogue must consider an inclusive international system that respects the bargains negotiated during the NPT - a lofty goal, no doubt. The United Nations enveloped the foundering League of Nations, and in the same way, a new nonproliferation structure must subsume the NPT. Though not a member of the NPT, India must communicate its desire to facilitate the discussion beyond the review conference.
Further, India must return to its non-aligned roots, developing a common agenda with countries on the nuclear periphery, such as Iran, while counterbalancing the US's dismissive posture toward nonproliferation. Unless India initiates multilateral discussion on new nonproliferation efforts, it will remain in nuclear purgatory. India cannot wait for another catastrophe or country to create space at the nuclear table - instead, it must pull up a chair.
Munish Puri is a visiting researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
(Copyright 2005 Munish Puri.)