The Hindutva weapon

Print edition : May 23, 1998

As a full-scale reactionary agenda begins to unfold, it is becoming clear that the 'consensus' behind the BJP's dangerous nuclear adventure is an attempted consensus behind Hindutva.

THE Pokhran explosions have brought independent India to a watershed comparable, in its long-term political significance, to the Sino-Indian War, the Emergency, and the destruction of the Babri Masjid. The national equation as well as India's international relations have been altered for the foreseeable future.

From the opening of the propaganda offensive by Defence Minister George Fernandes in early April to Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee's letter to U.S. President Bill Clinton after the explosions, the BJP Government has maintained its focus on China as the strategic adversary that threatens India's security directly and as the main culprit behind Pakistan's nuclear capability, not to speak of the threat it is said to pose through Myanmar. This focus on China is deliberate, as the beginning of a methodical red-baiting offensive within the country, as the inauguration of an arms race on the Asian continent, and as an appeal to long-term U.S. goals in Asia. What we are witnessing is the staging of a short-term Indo-U.S. tension as a prelude to a long-term, comprehensive strategic alliance.

It is possible that there was an "intelligence failure" on the part of the Central Intelligence Agency and that the U.S. Government was caught unawares, as is being claimed in some U.S. circles. That is possible but not probable, given the American capabilities of global surveillance. Nor would it be the first time in recent history that the U.S. would claim an "intelligence failure" when it was necessary for it to pretend lack of advance information with regard to developments that it condones but is formally committed to opposing. The U.S. is also bound by its own laws to impose sanctions against countries that undertake such tests. A degree of tension in the short run is inevitable. But the sanctions are likely to be imposed indifferently and shall be gradually relaxed, in the not-too-distant future. Multilateral agencies such as the World Bank, and some countries such as Japan, are likely to follow the U.S. lead in the imposition as well as circumvention of these sanctions.

Meanwhile, the immediate reaction from various Western capitals shows that while the tests are being condemned all around, there is no consensus behind the sanctions and the Bharatiya Janata Party Government shall be able to ride them out easily. The fact that key countries such as Russia, France and Britain - three members out of five in the nuclear club - have not imposed sanctions is as significant as the fact that the U.S. has done so. This fact will also be cited within the U.S. for relaxing the sanctions, in view of non-cooperation from "allies" and because American sanctions in the context of this non-cooperation shall be portrayed as favourable to European capital and detrimental to American business interests. This argument shall gain further strength from the breakneck liberalisation and privatisation that the BJP Government is now bound to undertake.

Aside from a possible short-term irritation, the long-term prospect is for a closer anti-China axis between the U.S. and India. This possibility gains greater credence in the overall context in which these tests have been undertaken. We are witnessing immense intensification of an international campaign on the issue of Tibet. Key members of the Clinton administration, including high officials from the Pentagon, have visited India immediately after the BJP take-over, explicitly endorsing the regime. This occasion was used to announce, with deliberate high visibility, the impending Indo-U.S. joint exercises in high altitude combat.

The crash of economies in East and South-East Asia, from which the advanced capitalist countries have benefited enormously, is a key aspect of the changing international and regional environments. In this economic warfare, China is the next target, and the U.S. shall greatly welcome military pressure on China. Americans know from long experience that many distortions and the eventual collapse of the Soviet economy ensued, at least substantially, from the unbearable pressure which that economy had to endure as the Soviet Union sought to retain some degree of military parity with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Today, the U.S. would like nothing as much as similar diversion of Chinese resources toward military expenditures in an Asian arms race. Behind the BJP's bogus anti-imperialism and the American sanctions lies this prospect of a far-reaching alliance in a new Cold War.

THE deliberate demonstration of multiple technologies through five different tests - especially the thermonuclear explosion and the latter two tests with the objective of collecting data for further computer simulations - leaves no doubt that this is a step toward actual weaponisation, in keeping with the BJP's repeated promises to make the "bomb". Although these tests do not yet make India a nuclear power in the definitional sense, the BJP has nevertheless signalled that India will now become a nuclear power in the same sense in which Israel is. In this context, the distinction between testing and weaponisation becomes more or less a scholastic eyewash.

The terms of the discussion about the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) have been changed drastically. Refusing to sign the CTBT on grounds of its discriminatory character when India was not a nuclear power could be reasonably construed as an act of resistance to unreasonable foreign pressure. By contrast, conducting actual tests, becoming a de facto nuclear power and then offering to consider accepting some portions of that treaty shall now be presented by the BJP-controlled media as an act of responsible statesmanship in the international arena. The BJP will try to take credit not on one count, but on three: for not signing the CTBT, for signing it, and for signing it only partially to the extent that Indian national interests are safeguarded.

This is a sophisticated approach with great propaganda value, and an alternative approach needs to be developed that is somewhat different from the alternatives being posed, even after these tests, by advocates and opponents of the CTBT. A call to sign it now converges alarmingly with what Clinton is demanding and the BJP itself is proposing. A call not to sign it amounts to pious nostalgia for the way the world was before these tests. The BJP can in fact live with either of these options. By not signing it, it keeps open the option for further tests and open weaponisation. By signing it, all of it or parts of it, the BJP manages to diffuse international condemnation, appeases the CTBT activists, carries on perfecting technology for weaponisation in laboratories, and paves the way for the Indo-U.S. axis sooner, rather than later.

In practice, the BJP will act precisely the way it acted on the Ayodhya issue and the way it has been acting on the nuclear issue until now. It said openly that it was going to do in Ayodhya what others would shudder even to think. Then, it did what it said it would do, in contravention of all legality, human decency and its own bogus promises. With that design accomplished, it restrained its allies from immediately going on to similar vandalism in Kashi and Mathura, so as to project for itself an image of relative moderation while keeping that issue alive but simmering only very slowly, for another time, even as the situation on the ground in both those places has been changing imperceptibly but fundamentally. The issue of the Ram Mandir itself was largely taken out of public debate while the most meticulous preparations have been made, right under the noses of all the official guardians of Indian secularism, for the building of the Mandir at an opportune time, exactly in the place where the Masjid once stood.

The BJP has acted in the same fashion on the nuclear issue. It, and the Bharatiya Jan Sangh before it, have repeatedly promised weaponisation. Upon taking power, it assigned the highest priority to carrying out these tests, without informing either friend or foe, with exactly the kind of covert preparation and lightning strike that it had practicised at Ayodhya. Having demonstrated its hawkishness, it will now offer to sign the CTBT, but only partially, knowing that the alternative pressures, to sign all of it or sign none of it, will only grow in the coming weeks and months, and that it must allow time for the sense of horror to get routinised and for the passions to subside. Then it will strike again, with yet another surprise, just as it will one day undoubtedly launch the building of the Mandir in the most dramatic way possible.

The CTBT is going to remain an issue in public debate. So a position has to be taken and the only possible position is that decisions of such far-reaching importance ought not be used, cynically, as bargaining counters and that the situation, therefore, must be frozen until the nation has sorted out the very basic parameters of its governance. The point needs to be made that India has to have the capability but also has to refrain from tests and deployments. The more crucial point, however, is that, having acted like thieves in a night of long knives, this Government has lost the right to rule and must resign so that a more responsible government can take over.

That a party which commands merely a quarter of the national vote could take an action of this magnitude so secretly and unilaterally, without a national debate, without consultation with senior leaders of the Opposition, without a strategic review it had promised, without informing its own allies in Government, raises questions not only about the competence of the BJP to rule but also about the kind of powers that are concentrated in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO). What this event demonstrates most dramatically is not that we need a presidential form of government but that far-reaching reforms are needed to prevent the PMO from acting in so presidential a manner. Moreover, when the PMO itself has been taken over by the semi-secret organisation of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which then brings its own mode of functioning to this high office, the question arises whether or not the PMO alone should continue to have sole authority over decision-making on the nuclear issue. Should there not be an autonomous agency for this critical area of decision-making that is equally answerable to the executive, the legislature and the judiciary? There needs to be a debate, in Parliament and outside Parliament, as to the kind of mechanisms we require which guarantee operational secrecy but decision-making transparency on issues of basic national policy?

Nor can the argument be made that such precipitate action was necessary in view of some immediate foreign provocation. China had taken no steps in recent years and even decades that posed any threat to Indian security. Pakistan had not carried out any nuclear tests, and its 'conventional' intervention in Indian domestic affairs, as in Kashmir and Punjab, should be dealt with through 'conventional' and political means. Meanwhile, India already has enough technology, as the BJP Government itself said, to match Pakistan's recent missile test, so that 'Pokhran' simply cannot be presented as a response to 'Ghauri'.

Nor have these tests any element of anti-imperialist nationalism. The BJP has not said that these were designed against the U.S. nuclear threat in the Pacific-Indian Ocean zones. It has targeted neighbours, instead. Far from securing us against imperialist threats, this action will lead to an unnecessary, expensive, dangerous and unethical arms race in Asia, will sabotage the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) within South Asia, and will negate the process of normalisation with China. In so doing, the tests indeed play into the hands of imperialists who are keen to keep Asia divided and have all of us squander our resources on weapons of destruction instead of mutual, regional cooperation that can free us from imperialist pressure. In this sense, of making the people of Asia fight each other, the BJP is acting today in imperialist interest as the RSS, through its communalism, used to undermine the national struggle against British colonialism.

THE crucial reason why the BJP Government needs to be confronted has to do, however, not so much with external relations as with what these explosions have wrought inside the country. The combination of (a) the show of Indian might and independence in decision-making, (b) the inviting and defying of U.S. sanctions, and (c) the ability to act decisively despite coalition constraints, has enabled the BJP to pick up the mantle of anti-imperialism in the tradition of the National Movement. This is a crucial moment in our history because the issue of anti-imperialism has hounded the RSS throughout its existence. Everyone knows - and therefore the BJP and the U.S. also know - that defiance of imperialism is a basic ingredient in Indian nationalism. For the BJP to graduate from 'Hindu' nationalism to 'Indian' nationalism, and thus to become a nationally hegemonic power, it too must go through this baptism of fire. The real fire it will not go through, but such fires as can be simulated by organising mass frenzy and on the electronic media. For this to happen, spectacles must be organised, just as the destruction of the Babri Masjid was orchestrated essentially as a fascist spectacle.

If that spectacle paved the way for the BJP to emerge as an all-India party and eventually the ruling party, these nuclear fireworks help it cut across the Hindu/secular divide and reach out to claim the mantle of Indian nationalism as such. This will unite very broad sections of the Indian middle classes - and not only the middle classes - whatever the immediate behaviour of the stock market might be. The impression will gain ground that the BJP is the only party capable of providing India with a coherent, assertive, visionary leadership. This effect is not going to wear off in days, or weeks, or months. Only a sustained counter-offensive can prevent it from still being there 20 years from now.

The BJP had so far established its leading role in defining Indian culture and Hindu religion. Now it has made its first massive attempt to capture the high ground of anti-imperialism. In both cases, the appeal is made to atavistic feelings of aggression, in the form of a promise to redeem honour. Meanwhile, if the Ayodhya movement re-defined the role of Ram in Indian belief systems as an all-India deity and warrior-prince, the Pokhran explosions were deliberately scheduled on Buddha Purnima and were nick-named "Buddha Smiles Again"; if Ambedkarites have their anti-caste Buddha, Hindutva will have its own Buddha who will bless nuclear weapons for the greater glory of Bharat Mata. These fantastic re-writings of the Indian past must not be dismissed simply as ludicrous, which of course they are. It is precisely the evocative power of this irrationality which is the most frightening, the most dangerous part; such are the raw materials of which fascist victories are made.

SO powerful, in fact, is the lure of this mob psychology that the Congress as well as much of what remains of the United Front have already fallen in line. A story is doing the rounds that what Vajpayee accomplished was only what P.V. Narasimha Rao had attempted. In his TV appearance, Jaipal Reddy tried hard to make out that the BJP was only taking credit for an event that had been prepared by the U.F. Former Prime Minister Deve Gowda has pronounced that the explosions are "necessary" for Indian security. Arjun Singh, the chief custodian of Congress secularism, has declared that the tests were not at all designed to enhance the political prestige of the BJP. Many more statements of this kind can be expected as time goes by.

In a quick poll of 1,007 adults in six metropolitan cities conducted in the wake of the explosions, the IMRB found support for them among 91 per cent of the respondents. The cynics of the Congress and the U.F. are responding to this jingoistic consensus that BJP has crafted. In the process, we are witnessing a sea-change in public discourse. The BJP has, in reality, departed from the national consensus on nuclear policy as it was first formulated in Nehru's days and was then adjusted in the early 1970s. But the indecent haste of the Congress and U.F. stalwarts to take credit for what the BJP has wrought is creating the impression that the Vajpayee Government has only implemented what has been Indian policy all along.

These are the most dangerous of times. The whole process of coalition-making that brought the BJP to power has shown that not only is Congress secularism merely pragmatic, but so has been the secularism of majority of the non-Left political formations in the country. Most of them can easily move into an equally pragmatic communalism, as the Trinamul Congress is now showing. Even in that arena, the Left is in reality rather isolated but secularism itself has been such a fundamental value in India that most of these pragmatic communalists dare not confess to their ideological shifts even as they join up with the BJP. Thanks to this ambiguity, the Left has a relatively wider area of manoeuvre in anti-communal politics.

In the wake of these hawkish tests, the extent of collaboration among virtually all the non-Left parties is far greater and much more openly professed. The Left, therefore, has a much narrower room for manoeuvre, much more squarely in danger of being called "anti-national" and being made, in the forseeable future, an object of full-scale repression on the charge that it has "extra-territorial loyalty". The spectre of the repressions that took place in the wake of the Sino-Indian War of 1962 now haunts the land, less than two months into the BJP Government. And yet, the Left will lose its very raison d'etre if it does not differentiate itself from the kind of national chauvinism that is represented by the BJP's designs in the nuclear arena, and if it does not define for itself and the nation, a nationalism different, more comprehensive, more fundamentally anti-imperialist than the kind that the BJP will predictably unleash on the question of U.S. sanctions. The Left has to move with the greatest of caution but move it must. On the nuclear issue itself, three things need to be done.

First, all the secular, anti-communal and anti-fascist forces should come together on the platform that in acting in a unilateral, irresponsible and chauvinist manner which threatens regional peace, the Vajpayee Government has lost the right to rule and must therefore resign.

Secondly, on the question of sanctions, all patriotic forces have to take the position that no foreigner has the right to threaten us with economic strangulation. But this point has to be made alongside the equally fundamental points that (a) the BJP's irresponsible behaviour has brought upon us not only American sanctions but also ridicule from peace-loving peoples worldwide, and (b) the American sanctions are themselves a bargaining position and a prelude in the formation of a long-term Indo-U.S. axis in Asia.

Thirdly, public discussions and hearings should be organised in as many places as possible, involving eminent scientists, the more sane military experts, some sensible politicians, social scientists, philosophers, jurists, economists and political activists of various kinds, to consider various issues of nuclear power in the drastically altered situation that now exists. The arbitrary nature of the PMO's powers should be part of this discussion. Similarly, we need a nationwide discussion and perhaps even an independent commission, to investigate issues of nuclear safety and the environmental and ecological costs involved in adopting this nuclear road. After all, Indian citizens do live even in Pokhran. In the process, the Reds may learn to be a little more Green and the Greens a bit more Red. Initiatives of this kind can help break the initial isolation that is inevitable in opposing the BJP's jingoism.

But isolation on the nuclear issue can be broken most effectively only if this issue, for all the gravity it has, is not addressed in isolation. The connection must be made with the communal agenda, with the fact that a step of this magnitude has been taken purely for the greater glory of the RSS, and that the consensus behind Vajpayee's nuclear policy amounts to a consensus behind Hindutva. Equally strongly, the point needs to be made that this act of bogus anti-imperialism is designed to facilitate the ability of the Hindutva forces to implement a programme of liberalisation and privatisation far more drastic than anything P. Chidambaram was able to implement or even envision. If the consensus built on nuclear sabre-rattling is not broken, public properties shall be sold to private capital more or less in the style of Russia, because after a swadeshi nuclear bomb there need be no other swadeshi.

Aijaz Ahmad is Senior Fellow, Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

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