Political echoes

Print edition : May 23, 1998

In the face of jingoistic sentiments whipped up by Hindutva organisations, the Left parties have articulated a fresh strategic perspective based on India's time-tested advocacy of nuclear disarmament.

IN the range of political reactions it elicited, Shakti '98 demonstrated nothing so conclusively as the power to paralyse momentarily both debate and dissent. Since there was a barely concealed streak of partisanship in the BJP-led Government's decision, reactions across the spectrum sought in the initial phase to separate the scientific content of the tests from the social and political context in which they had been conducted.

President K.R. Narayanan set the tone of public reaction with his warm felicitations to the nuclear and defence sciences community. Their achievement, he said, would enable India to "make a more effective contribution to the object of complete and comprehensive disarmament and a non-discriminatory and more equal world order."

This effort to place the nuclear tests firmly in the pacifist perspective was apparent in the reaction of former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral. Indian scientists, he said, had managed consistently to turn "every denial into an opportunity to make India a reasonable power in (the) spheres of space and nuclear technology." India's policy of voluntary restraint, its advocacy of an equitable global bargain which would make the world safe from the nuclear threat, had never been appreciated, Gujral added. The tests, in making apparent "what was already known", also cemented the national resolve and reaffirmed the "policy of peace", he said.

While the parties of the Left initially reserved comment in favour of further deliberations, the Congress(I) demanded that the Government explain what the decisive influences behind the timing of the tests were.

CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet.-ANU PUSHKARNA

If these first responses were marked by a degree of sobriety, the discordant tone was now slow in emerging. K.S. Sudarshan, the general secretary of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), came out on May 14 with the suggestion that the BJP had scheduled a similar series of tests during its brief 13-day interlude in power in 1996. However, he claimed, the U.S. came to know of these plans and ensured that the Vajpayee Government was defeated in Parliament.

When contacted for a clarification, Sudarshan seemed to retreat somewhat: "I have not said that I know this for certain. But I have definitely heard responsible people talking about this - that there was a proposal and that it could not be carried out on account of the collapse of the Government. The role played by the U.S. has also been talked about."

There was no retreat, however, from the atavistic notion of imagined historical glories that inspire RSS ideologues and their acolytes in the BJP. The RSS' advocacy of the nuclear bomb, Sudarshan said, arose from its historical perspective: "Our history has proved that we are a heroic, intelligent race capable of becoming world leaders. But the one deficiency that we had was of weapons, good weapons. Our stature among world nations will go up only if we possess good weapons like other countries."

CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan.-P.V. SIVAKUMAR

Meanwhile, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a close affiliate of the RSS, had embarked upon a plan to construct a monument to national virility at the site of the blasts. In a programme strongly evocative of its Ayodhya campaign, the VHP announced that water from all the major pilgrimage spots in the country would be transported to Pokhran in an act of symbolic consecration.

The RSS' viewpoint embodies all the hazards of conjoining modern technological expertise with a primitivist world view. That large sections of this Government imbibe this ideology as part of their formative processes is no assurance that an enlightened strategic doctrine will be evolved in the aftermath of the Pokhran tests.

AS the BJP struck the celebratory note, other sections began to shed their early reticence. The Congress(I), which had been sceptical about the timing of the tests, discarded this stance in the subsequent days. It retained its unreserved commendation for the scientific effort while deprecating the BJP's "systematic attempt" to exploit the tests as a partisan political issue. This was also the content of Gujral's subsequent letter to the Prime Minister, which urged him to douse partisan passions and start the serious business of evolving a doctrine appropriate to the new context.

The Left parties debated the issue at a number of parallel and joint conclaves. Free from the compulsion to claim a part of the credit for the blasts, they managed to come up with perhaps the only clear articulation of a fresh strategic perspective. A joint statement of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the CPI on May 12 commended the scientific effort, but questioned the Government's rationale for dispensing with the strategic defence review, which had been repeatedly portrayed as the essential precursor to a decision on the nuclear option. It also asked for a firm reaffirmation of India's time-honoured advocacy of nuclear disarmament.

An editorial published a few days later in People's Democracy, the weekly organ of the CPI(M), called for penetrating the "veneer of a whipped-up national jingoism", which would enable a dispassionate consideration of the BJP's strategy "of consolidating itself in power" solely in order to implement an agenda which would seriously threaten India's image as a peaceful, secular and democratic nation.

This was followed on May 15 by separate statements from the two main parties of the Left demanding a firm commitment that nuclear weapons would not be inducted into operational readiness. The CPI(M) said that the BJP's fait accompli, devoid of any explanation of underlying strategic compulsions, undermined the independence of India's foreign policy and jeopardised the process of reconciliation in the neighbourhood. The overtures towards the U.S., which named China as a security threat, failed to honour India's deeper conviction that nuclear-enabled U.S. military bases in the Indian Ocean region - which were used as staging posts for aggressive actions in the Gulf - were the principal threat to a safe and secure neighbourhood.

Both the CPI(M) and the CPI preempted a strategic gambit that ideologues of the nuclear weapons estate have been suggesting - that India utilise its economic reforms and the allure of its untapped markets as a bargaining counter in negotiations with the West. The untrammelled entry of foreign capital would compound already acute livelihood pressures, and would in conjunction with the likely impact of an arms race in the region be disastrous for national well-being, said the CPI(M).

In the confused aftermath of Shakti '98, one strategic tendency has advocated a 'No First Use' policy as adequate moral assurance for the troubled neighbourhood. The Left parties clearly believe that this begs the question. As doctrine, 'No First Use' is already one step ahead in the scale of aggressive intent, in relation to "no induction". Nothing less than the latter commitment would serve to mitigate the consequences of India's overt nuclear posture in the neighbourhood.

This position was further underlined, this time as a joint demand of all four parties of the Left - including the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Forward Bloc. Contrary to a rather opportunistic line that has gained currency among the ideologues of nuclear weapons, the Left parties insisted that there should be no retreat from the consistent national position on discriminatory treaties such as the CTBT and the NPT. Rather than seek the role of a vassal king in the American nuclear imperium, India should shift its focus back to the process of reconciliation in the neighbourhood, said the Left.

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