Apart from losing out on much larger access to clean and cheap nuclear power, it has forced Pakistan to build its own nukes and, thereby, render our conventional military superiority irrelevant

Exactly 50 years back to this day (March 5) the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) came into force, essentially drawing a red line between nuclear haves and have-nots and disallowing the latter to cross over. India did not like this inequity and decided to stay out. Up on the moral high ground, it is nice and cosy.

Half a century down the line it is good time to reflect upon that decision. Dug-in heels has caused India to remain stuck. If India had signed the Treaty, it would probably have had — let’s guess — ten times more than the 6,780 MW of nuclear power that it has today. Nuclear power, if one goes strictly by the book, is safe — and also clean and cheap. Imagine the multiplier effect of, say, 60,000 MW of clean, cheap electric power on the economy.

In the absence of any assistance from abroad, India has struggled to bootstrap itself up the greasy pole of technology. A good example is the 500 MW Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor that India began building in 2004 and is yet to complete — apparently, because of the fear of handling the tricky coolant, liquid sodium.

A successful PFBR campaign would have armed India with technology and confidence to build a dozen more, removing the constraint of low availability of domestic uranium (because a by-product of the breeder reactors is more nuclear fuel for other reactors.)

Not signing the NPT, therefore, meant a measly 6,870 MW in half a century.

But that is still beside the point. There was some inevitability to India not wasting ink on signing a veritably iniquitous Treaty. The Treaty was opened for signature in 1968, only three years after India defended itself successfully against a better armed Pakistan, which had assumed India to be vulnerable after having been emaciated by a war with China three years earlier.

Indian leaders must have retained a tactile memory of the 1965 war when they planned to build nukes to discourage future aggression by the hostile neighbour. At such a time, if somebody had asked India to give up the idea of building nuclear weapons, especially when Pakistan’s backers were rich with them, India would have dismissed it outright.

Then came the 1971 conflict, which strengthened India’s resolve to fortify itself with deterrent weapons. And so, in 1974, the Smiling Buddha exploded in the Rajasthan desert, not only causing the nuclear haves to huddle into a Nuclear Suppliers Group but also forcing Pakistan to build its own nukes, even if had to “eat grass”.

But when India and Pakistan became nuclear weapon owners, it rendered India’s conventional military superiority irrelevant. If India had signed the NPT, it is difficult to see Pakistan being assisted by China to kick the equaliser goal with India — and India would have retained the military edge.

Perhaps the presence of nukes on both sides of the border kept an uneasy peace, but still India was the loser because it lost the power over a junior opponent. It had to be mindful of the finger on the trigger in Islamabad. It was not until Balakot last year that India could call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff.

Thus the status of ‘a great nation that stood its moral ground’ — assuming that India has it — has come with a heavy price tag.

However, all this is with the benefit of hindsight. Back in March 1970 who could have predicted this course of history?