Nuclear heat

Print edition : June 06, 1998

The cynical calculations behind the BJP-led Government's new nuclear posture overshadow claims about India's position of strategic advantage.

EVEN as the national capital, along with most other parts of the country, struggled to cope with a torrid summer, political circles were grappling with the consequences of India's lately acquired status as a nuclear weapon state.

At 4.30 p.m. on May 28, officials from the Ministry of External Affairs summoned the press corps to a briefing, to contest vigorously Pakistan's "vicious propaganda" in suggesting an Indian intent to attack its nuclear facilities. In the Lok Sabha a little later, Communist Party of India (Marxist) veteran Somnath Chatterji rose to join the debate on the consequences of the nuclear fait accompli that the Atal Behari Vajpayee Government had served upon the nation.

Was a nuclear arms race in the South Asian sub-continent part of the Vajpayee Government's intentions, asked Chatterji. Did it really conceive of a situation where the country would be forced to compete for strategic advantage in a macabre game of nuclear brinkmanship? Curiously, just as he was beginning to draw out the baneful consequences of an arms race, a stir went around the Opposition benches. Word had trickled in of a Pakistani riposte to India's display of nuclear might, and Congress(I) member K. Natwar Singh was soon on his feet, demanding a confirmation of the news from the Government.

Sushma Swaraj, as the most senior Minister present, was quick with the confirmation that Pakistan had detonated two nuclear devices at 3.30 p.m. Opposition sensitivities were not assuaged by the fact that this authoritative confirmation came two hours after the event. An uproar ensued, in which the Vajpayee Government was pilloried for having taken the country into the vortex of a lethal arms spiral.

Vajpayee brandishes a sword presented to him in New Delhi on May 30.-KAMAL KISHORE/REUTERS

The Prime Minister made his appearance a few minutes later and took a seat in elaborate deference to Chatterji's right to hold the floor. Under the demand of the Opposition, he rose to inform the House that Pakistan's nuclear tests had indeed been accomplished. This, he continued, only vindicated the nuclear posture that his Government had adopted. The new situation was not unexpected, but the Government and the nation would face it with firmness, unity and unshakable resolve, he vowed.

Home Minister L.K. Advani had, in the intervening period, rushed into the Central Hall of Parliament in considerable excitement. Eyewitnesses testify to a sense almost of exultation in his demeanour. Just hours earlier, he had intervened in the parliamentary debate with a prolonged narration on Pakistan's proxy war in Indian territory, sticking doggedly to the agenda he had adopted since the Pokhran tests, of interpreting them purely in the context of neighbourhood hostilities.

At a later meeting with a senior journalist, Advani elaborated on the situation that had arisen with Pakistan's nuclear tests. In an environment of opacity, his views had the virtue of chilling clarity. "There will be sanctions for both countries now," he said. But these would hurt the neighbour's economy more than India's. "My own view," he went on, "has all along been that if Pakistan goes in for a test, it would be good for us from all points of view" (The Indian Express, New Delhi, May 29).

AFTER all the Prime Minister's attempts to disarm the Opposition by placing the Pokhran tests in a continuum with India's long-standing foreign policy commitments, Advani's locutions brought to the surface a more cynical calculation. Tacitly, the Pokhran tests were an invitation to Pakistan to show its hand. The leverage afforded by India's greater depth of institutionalised scientific expertise would then come into play, to induce a slow haemorrhage of resources in the hostile neighbour. With a changed cast of characters, the ground was being prepared for a reprise of the brutal logic of the Cold War, when the relentless pace of U.S. militarisation and the enunciation of progressively more aggressive nuclear doctrines pressured the Soviet Union into a debilitating, and finally suicidal, arms spiral.

Advani provided further insights into the basic assumptions of the new nuclear posture in his strategic reading of the nation's threat perception. The Government's persistent fudging of this question in the aftermath of Pokhran had not inspired much confidence. Vajpayee wrote to U.S. President Bill Clinton on May 11, pointedly identifying the nuclear arsenal of China and its cooperation and acquiescence in Pakistan's weapons programme, as the decisive factors behind India's nuclear tests. The Ministry of External Affairs was not consulted in the authorship of this important communication, and was aghast at the contents when they were published, evidently on the strength of a high-level leak, in The New York Times.

Curiously, a statement by the Minister of State for External Affairs, Vasundhara Raje, placed before the Lok Sabha on May 27, spoke of all-round improvement in relations with China and the mutual resolve of the two countries to "work towards a constructive and cooperative relationship oriented towards the 21st century." Still another described the recent visit of General Fu Quanyou, Chief of Staff of the Chinese Army, as a landmark in relations with that country. The Prime Minister was, in particular, quoted as having warmly commended the Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement of 1993 and the Agreement on Confidence Building Measures of 1996, as crucial steps towards a full reconciliation with China.

If incoherence was the distinctive feature of the official rationalisation, a fresh twist was imparted by Advani's interview. An arms race was a possibility, he said, in response to a specific query, unless "they (Pakistan) give up their obsession with Kashmir or we are willing to give it up." There was clearly no retreat from his position that the Kashmir issue was the fundamental inspiration for the tests. But Advani went further to provide a rather innovative reading of the threat faced by the country: "If we (the BJP) were not there, these people would have given it up. More than the pseudo-secularists, the real threat now comes from the pseudo-liberals." Asked for an explanation, Advani characterised the "pseudo-liberals" as "those who would like to hand over Kashmir and buy peace."

Although the initial impact of Pokhran was a paralysis of public debate, it did not take long for dissent to surface. The devastating riposte from Pakistan came just when the dissenting voices were beginning to knit together their perceptions into a coherent framework. This lent an extra edge to the BJP's early insistence that an individual's attitude towards the bomb was the touchstone of his loyalty to the country. Seemingly having vanquished the "pseudo-secularists" in his campaign over Ayodhya, Advani has now given the call to arms against the "pseudo-liberals". Just as the demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya - an event that Advani still affects a deep sense of regret over - was a crucial episode in the campaign of subjugation against secularism, the blasts in Pokhran and the Pakistani response are defining moments in the BJP's crusade against liberal political opinion.

Advani's early belligerence, his thinly veiled warning that Pakistan should take note of the "changed geostrategic situation" in the region, had set the framework for later interventions by Pramod Mahajan, political adviser to the Prime Minister, and for Parliamentary Affairs Minister Madan Lal Khurana's bumptious call to arms against Pakistan. The Left parties and the Congress(I), alarmed by the aggravation of an already fraught situation, criticised these outbursts and counselled moderation. This only created the conditions for a further escalation of the war of words within. BJP vice-president K.L. Sharma joined in with the assertion that the Government was determined to "put an end to the Pakistani menace." For good measure, he also attacked the Congress(I) and the Left for their alleged indifference to national security and their solicitous concern for the well-being of other countries.

THIS coarsening of the political discourse offers a grim foretaste of bitter divisions to come. The BJP's natural inclination to adopt different discourses in different forums could have devastating consequences in the sensitive new juncture. Prime Minister Vajpayee, for his part, is unwilling to shed his pretence that the new nuclear posture is in conformity with the country's time-honoured pacifist perspectives. There has only been an incremental change, occasioned entirely by security concerns. Yet his conciliatory sounds simply fail to mesh with the belligerent calls that his closest political associates have been emitting. His call for an internal political consensus is undermined by the Home Minister's querulous suggestion that there is a threat within the country that the Government would have to deal with.

"Adventurism is easy, but restraint is far more difficult," said P.A. Sangma in his intervention in the Lok Sabha debate. In just three weeks following Pokhran, the country's vaunted scientific achievements in the nuclear field had been reduced to the single dimension of weapons expertise, and then been neutralised by Pakistan, he continued. For those who had imagined that India had won admission to the exclusive circle of nuclear weapon states, it must be a mortifying realisation that Pakistan too could stake a credible claim for membership. Nuclear adventurism had provoked an equal and antagonistic reaction, which established a deadly symmetry between the world's greatest democracy and its smaller and far weaker neighbour.

Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha was quick to rise to the challenge. The difference between India and Pakistan, he said, was that a state of emergency had been declared in the latter country, its Constitution suspended, and the right to dissent smothered. India, in contrast, could continue to debate the matter in a spirit of freedom and equality.

Under persistent questioning by the Opposition, the BJP was willing to admit, though grudgingly, that it perhaps shared no part of the credit for laying the foundations of the country's nuclear expertise. Yashwant Sinha's heated rejoinder to Sangma raises the further question of the BJP's role in the sustenance of democratic institutions and conventions. In its exaltation of national security as a superior objective that transcends rational discussion and overrides the right of dissent, the BJP shows a pronounced proclivity to abridge fundamental democratic processes by creating a tide of popular opinion against a supposed enemy within.

That was a mission it could perform with great efficacy in the aftermath of Pokhran. Pakistan's response may make its task still easier, though the political advantage they derive could be neutralised when reality dawns on a nation that has been led against its will, into a state of siege.

Efforts to renew the engagement with the global community have been marked by a state of incoherence and uncertainty. The official position was initially that India would be willing to adhere to some of the commitments of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which it had strenuously opposed in an earlier context. It was not clear whether this would be through formal accession to the treaty or through a reaffirmation of the policy of voluntary restraint.

A moratorium on nuclear testing was declared after the second series of tests at Pokhran. Brajesh Mishra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, also simultaneously expressed the Government's willingness to engage in negotiations with Pakistan towards an agreement forswearing the first use of nuclear weaponry. India would also be willing, he said, to convert its moratorium on testing into a "formal obligation" under the CTBT regime. Towards this end, he said, a dialogue with certain "key interlocutors" would be opened up.

Prime Minister Vajpayee later informed Parliament that the Government would be willing to move from its moratorium on testing towards a "de jure formalisation of this declaration." This accentuated the feeling that the Government was preparing to accede to the CTBT, renouncing the nation's honoured commitment to a global process of disarmament.

India's transient claim towards inclusion in the privileged club of nuclear weapons states never had much chance of success. Even if the Pakistani nuclear tests had not decisively scuppered that demand, there was always the likelihood that India's ambitions would set off a clamour of competing claims from other nations that stood on the threshold of nuclear weapons capability. Having shed all restraint, India sought in a spirit of BJP-inspired vain-glory, to join the ranks of those who would seek to impose restraints on the lesser placed. From being the foremost critic in global forums of the unequal nuclear bargain, India sought brazenly, to seek a privileged position within it. In the process, India's abiding commitment to the global dimensions of disarmament, in opposition to all efforts to sequester it within regional bounds, has been irretrievably damaged.

There are two platforms on which the nuclear bargain is currently being conducted. The CTBT has, by and large, taken on board its full membership and now only awaits the late arrival of India and Pakistan. The U.S. is also engaged in a persistent effort to open a new frontier of nuclear non-proliferation activism in the shape of the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty.

As recently as June 1997, India led a group of 26 non-aligned states in the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva, in urging that an ad hoc committee for nuclear disarmament be constituted. This attracted the ire of the U.S. and its allies, which were insistent that the fissile material cutoff should be the first priority of the CD. The non-aligned states, led by India, insisted that the fissile material cutoff should be encompassed within, or be secondary to, a global disarmament initiative. Today, in the aftermath of Pokhran, India stands willing to renounce its leadership - founded on principle - of the non-aligned states, and partake of negotiations on a fissile material cutoff.

Home Minister L.K. Advani addressing an all-party meeting at Parliament annexe in New Delhi on May 22.-AJIT KUMAR / AP

"India has a commitment to world peace and order," said former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral in his intervention in the Lok Sabha debate. But Pokhran had engendered an atmosphere of "war-mongering and jingoism" in the neighbourhood which undermined this commitment. In the process, he said, all of the nation's foreign policy and its vision of the country's place in the globe, had been reduced to a narrow "Pakistan-centric" perspective. The spirit of arbitrariness had taken a sufficient toll, he went on. It was time now to rebuild a doctrine of engagement with the neighbourhood and the world, which was premised upon the fundamental requirements of peace, good-neighbourliness and disarmament.

THE BJP's dark suggestions of enemies within will never be conducive to a process of consensus building. The Congress(I), alarmed at the dangerous escalation of hostilities in the neighbourhood, has urged the Government to take up Pakistan's offer of talks without further delay.

The Left parties have laid out the fundamental axioms on which a new domestic consensus should be crafted, to deal with the new situation. There should be, first, a firm commitment not to go in for the militarisation of the nuclear option, followed by an immediate declaration that India will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in any context. And rather than be stampeded into unconditional accession to the CTBT, the country should resume its advocacy of a global process of disarmament. In a joint statement issued on May 29 in the wake of Pakistan's nuclear tests, the CPI(M) and the CPI said that the Chagai tests in response to Pokhran represented "not a vindication of the policy adopted by the BJP-led Government as the Prime Minister has claimed, but an inevitable confirmation of how wrong has been the reversal of India's long-standing nuclear policy."

The Left parties put forward the following specific demands: "The Vajpayee Government should not seek to rouse national chauvinism on a sensitive issue like nuclear weapons. It should immediately open a dialogue with the Pakistani Government to defuse tensions. The CPI(M) and the CPI want to make it clear that a national consensus can be evolved only on the following basis: (a) India should not go for weaponisation and the Vajpayee Government must not make or deploy nuclear weapons; (b) the Government should immediately declare no first-use of nuclear weapons; (c) the Government should not proceed towards signing the CTBT; (d) India should step up efforts for universal nuclear disarmament; and (e) what should be done in the post-Pokhran test period should be discussed with all national political parties so that a common approach is formulated."

Clearly, the prevalent mood after Pokhran was not the most congenial for rational discussion. But with Pakistan having conducted a second series of tests, supposedly with devices of greater explosive power, the consequences of the logic of nuclear exterminism are apparent to all but the most obtuse. If the Government is unable now to step back from the precipice, if it remains torn between the inherent logic of its adventurism and the disturbing awareness of the lethal consequences that could follow, even if indecisiveness should prevail in a situation fraught with uncertainties, then the default processes of the nuclear state would tend naturally to dominate decision-making. From the fait accompli of Pokhran to the nightmare culmination of the nuclear age - the prospect of mutually assured destruction - would then be a short step.

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