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An anniversary of ironies

Published : May 22, 1999 00:00 IST

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The BJP-led caretaker government celebrates May 11, the day it conducted a series of nuclear tests last year, as National Technology Day and Resurgent India Day.

RESIDENTS of Khetolai, a village 4 km from the Pokhran test range, are unaware that history was created in the vicinity of their village. A year after the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government conducted a series of nuclear tests in its vainglorious pursuit of a new global role, Khetolai witnessed a mobilisation of peace activists intent on repudiating the legacy of Pokhran. The village itself reflects none of the technological prowess the nuclear tests supposedly represented and little of the progress it promised. Civic amenities remain in the same state of disrepair and the structural damage caused to the dwellings by the nuclear tests remains unremedied.

This year, May 11 was celebrated under a dual rubric. As National Technology Day, it was an occasion to honour and reward the pursuit of technological achievement. In this interpretation, the Pokhran blasts were cast as a symbol of progress across diverse fields. A parallel commemoration saw May 11 designated as Resurgent India Day. This was the more overtly political observance, suffused with the symbolism of the BJP's rather quirky reading of Indian history. It was an occasion to invoke ancient glories, besides inventing a few. The musculature of nuclear weapons, it seemed, was all that was needed for a recreation of all the civilisational grandeur of the past.

Speaking at a celebratory rally in Mumbai, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee said that the dance of destruction in Yugoslavia vindicated India's decision last year to go nuclear. No country was safe in the new world order, he said, and the acquisition of nuclear weapons would ensure that in an environment of global insecurity, India would never lack the means to defend itself.

These were curious locutions for a Prime Minister who had proffered his first explanations for the nuclear tests to the President of the United States, causing much bemusement within the country, and outrage in the neighbourhood. If they represent a genuine awakening, then they signal something crucial - that eight rounds of the rather grandly titled "strategic dialogue" with the U.S., conducted in an environment of secrecy and opacity, have ended in ignominious failure. The "new beginning" in relations promised in January by India's special envoy Jaswant Singh and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott - the interlocutors from the two sides - has proven to be a non-starter.

After initial resistance, the U.S. indicated during the course of the Jaswant-Talbott dialogue that it would not be averse to India pursuing a "minimum credible nuclear deterrent" - provided, the magnitude of the deployment is firmly specified. India, for its part, seemed only to be asking for the U.S.' stamp of approval for this rather hazy notion before acceding to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

K. Natwar Singh, chief of the foreign policy cell of the Congress(I), revealed that Talbott had been assured of India's accession to the CTBT by May. After the most recent of their encounters in January this year, Jaswant Singh had reportedly given him this rather firm undertaking. Natwar Singh was incredulous on being blandly informed of this momentous commitment, but held his counsel - Talbott paid a courtesy call on Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi after concluding his discussions, and it seemed unwise to make too much of what transpired.

Evidently, after plunging neighbourhood relations into turmoil, the BJP-led government was seeking a strategic accommodation with the U.S., a junior partnership role in the enforcement of the new world order. When the U.S. rained missiles on Afghanistan and Sudan in August last year, the Indian government chose not to question the validity of its purpose; it mildly questioned the selective and unilateral nature of the U.S.' action. When Iraq suffered a more brutal assault in December last year, the BJP-led government once again reacted with prudent understatement. It has taken the sheer vindictiveness of the attack on Yugoslavia to persuade Vajpayee and his Cabinet colleagues that an accommodation with the U.S., even if it were possible, could only be at the cost of the principles that India holds most dear.

INDIA'S accession to the CTBT before the September 1999 deadline for its entry into force now seems an impossibility. Few voices across the political spectrum speak in its favour today. Even the BJP, which had furtively entered into a deal of mutual convenience with the U.S., is today assailed by a sudden sense of doubt.

Fortuitously, the pressure on India is likely to ease in the coming months on account of global developments. The U.S. Senate looks increasingly unlikely to take up the CTBT for consideration until the Russian Duma ratifies the second of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START-2). The Duma in turn is irked by the U.S.' effort to revive the national missile defence programme in clear contravention of the Anti-Ballistic Missiles (ABM) Treaty. Russian President Boris Yeltsin and senior Chinese spokesmen have further warned that the global disarmament dialogue in general, and the CTBT in particular, have been gravely endangered by the U.S. aggression in the Balkans.

Sobriety and reason are likely to be at a severe premium in this global cacophony. The CTBT was an inevitable price the nuclear weapons states had to bear to secure the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995. Its collapse, which now seems a real prospect, would cast an ominous shadow over the NPT review conference scheduled for the year 2000. It is a context that invests the agenda of nuclear abolition with a fresh relevance. But in having squandered valuable moral capital after Pokhran, India may be powerless to influence the global debate. Far from being a defining moment in the resurgence of the nation, Pokhran may well prove to be a way-station in the rapid descent into a new global disorder.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated May 22, 1999.)

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