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Spurring regional arms race

India’s formal membership of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) is strangely seen by many in the country as a feather in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cap, which would ultimately pave the way for New Delhi’s elevation as a major player in the global arms export market.
Intriguing it is because one of Modi’s illustrated predecessors in office, Atal Behari Vajpayee, had once said famously at a public function that India has traditionally abhorred all forms of arms race since inception for good reason.
Vajpayee categorically declared that New Delhi will remain committed to the cause of global disarmament to prevent death, destruction and individual tragedies associated with conflict, resulting from proliferation of deadly weapons systems invented and manufactured with profit motive. Indeed, Vajpayee spoke from the core of his heart because he sincerely believed that the cost of encouraging an Indian version of imperialistic military industrial complex would be extremely high and devastating, especially in a country where vast number of people struggles daily to make both ends meet due to inequitable economic growth.
Not many are aware of Vajpayee’s instinctive disdain for lavish spending of resources on arms race, notwithstanding his nod to explode five nuclear devices in the summer of 1998, as he believes such non-productive expenditure actually keeps human being in political, psychological and economic chains for eternity.
Vajpayee, in fact, wanted to invest heavily in the social sectors to improve the quality of life of teeming millions, instead of contributing to future anarchy in the region and beyond. But, he was, as a senior Vajpayee government source confessed to this writer once, compelled by his party’s hard-line elements and the larger saffron family to perilously twist India’s peace-oriented nuclear policy out of shape.
“Vajpayee knew in advance that New Delhi will become vulnerable to external arm-twisting and enormous economic burden will be imposed on the masses because sovereignty-eroding policies will be forced on the country” asserted the source, who went on to add “unfortunately, the Hindu right wing forces were under the impression that non-state terror actors, disturbing India’s tranquility, could be contained effectively if only India’s nuclear weaponization was formally acknowledged.”
In fact, Vajpayee had privately conceded subsequently that he had stepped into a trap and exposed the people of South Asia to great risk, as the Pokhran tests had exacerbated regional tension. Unfortunately, Vajpayee’s realization did not deter Modi from treading the path of making India a manufacturing hub of weapons of mass murder in the guise of promoting his “Make in India” initiative.
India’s high-profile premier is ready to ignore the human cost as he is determined to help India grab a portion of the trillions of dollars spent every year on war preparations. Expectedly, many experts, including some from Pakistan and China, fear that with India’s entry into MTCR as the 35th member formally ratified, the stage is set for an intense arms race and heated strategic rivalry in South and Southeast Asia.
Surely, they have valid reasons for such apprehension because India’s strategic policy making process under Modi’s leadership has been outsourced to a public policy think-tank, renowned for promoting rabid ultra-nationalism.
A senior government source has, in fact, confided in this writer sometime back how plans are afoot to drag Islamabad into a costly arms race at a time when Pakistan’s economy is gradually stabilizing and the country is poised to move into the growth paradigm confidently.
New Delhi’s strategy vis-à-vis Pakistan, as per the same source, is to keep the western neighbor embroiled in permanent uncertainty, so as to damage its economy in a manner that makes it impossible to sustain the strategic parity that has existed over the years.
“The idea is to compel Islamabad to spend more on defense,” said a strategic expert who has an unfettered access to Modi’s inner circle. And MTCR may just provide the chance to Modi and the overzealous strategic planners to initiate a mad arms race in South Asia in the not too distant future.
After all, the prized membership of an elite multilateral export control club will not only yield a rich harvest of state-of-the-art technologies for ballistic missile and drone systems, including those that are theoretically nuclear-capable, but also opens up the possibility of India being made a junior partner in a fierce geo-strategic competition in the extended South Asian region.
Besides, New Delhi has presented itself as a desperate client seeking hi-tech weapons systems to topple the regional balance of power. In the process, some experts feel, India has surrendered her three and half decades old integrated guided missile development program, which includes all tactical and strategic stand-off platforms deemed necessary for consolidating the nation’s defensive and offensive capabilities, as well as the coveted space research work that has provided strategic depth-cum-autonomy to the military through a regional navigational satellite system developed for accurate war-time targeting.
Let us not forget that India’s defense scientists have put in years of hard work to successfully develop tactical weapons systems and associated platforms to counter MTCR attempt of preserving western monopoly over critical projectile technology. And ironically, New Delhi has quietly surrendered to the same technology denial regime that it has stood up to courageously.
For years, India’s successive governments have ensured that the country’s strategic weaponization policy, premised on a curious mix of hard power and principle, does not endanger regional stability. Hopefully, Modi’s India will continue to remain a Mahatma Gandhi-envisaged land of peace, despite the MTCR breakthrough.

Seema Sengupta is a Calcutta-based journalist and columnist.