Frontline Volume 16 - Issue 10, May. 08 - 21, 1999
India's National Magazine
from the publishers of THE HINDU

Table of Contents


'What wrong did this man do?'


THIS rhetorical question must be familiar to hundreds of thousands of readers of the full-page advertisement issued in favour of the Vajpayee Government by a saffron brigade front, 'Lok Abhiyan', and carried by various newspapers round the country. It must be recognised as the propaganda fusillade that launched Election Campaign '99.

The democratic answer to the rhetorical question: the first significant act of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Government after it came to power at the Centre in March 1998 was to hijack India's independent and peace-oriented nuclear policy and twist it perilously out of shape. It was a policy that had been shaped over half a century of independence and withstood the test of various external challenges as well as pressures mounted by the enforcers of the Discriminatory Global Nuclear Bargain (DGNB). The essence of the bargain is the division of the world into five nuclear weapons states, the 'haves', and the rest, the 'have-nots', and the imposition of two completely different sets of rules for the two categories.

That the decision to explode five nuclear devices at Pokhran on May 11 and 13, 1998 and to weaponise the nuclear option was made pre-emptively, in the utmost secrecy, in the name of "national security" - targeting especially China and Pakistan - and "shakti", without any objective review or democratic discussion, in clear violation of the promises made in the National Agenda for Governance, in utter disregard of both the consequences for the region and the basic interests of the Indian people, was in keeping with the reactionary and authoritarian character of the decision. It was also in keeping with the character of the decision that within weeks the whole world could see the nuclear policy of the Government of the Hindu Right swing from jingoistic adventurism to virtual capitulation to the terms laid down by the enforcers of the DGNB, principally the United States.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee at the Pokhran test site in May 1998. Within weeks of coming to power, the BJP-led Government hijacked India's peace-oriented nuclear policy and twisted it perilously out of shape, at great cost to the nation.

The early stance and statements of the Government were nothing if not vainglorious. Within days of the Pokhran explosions, a high-placed expert formulated the Indian demand on the regime of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) thus: "Tell us what we are and we will tell you whether we can sign. Guarantee to us that technology controls, which you apply as though we were a non-nuclear weapons state, will be removed."1 In short, let us into the NPT regime as the sixth nuclear weapons state and we might play.

In the first official statement issued after the first round of Pokhran explosions, Brajesh Mishra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, announced that "India would be prepared to consider being an adherent of some of the undertakings in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)," adding: "But this cannot obviously be done in a vacuum. It would necessarily be an evolutionary process from concept to commitment and would depend on a number of reciprocal activities."2 Soon after this, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee boasted in a magazine interview: "India is now a nuclear weapon state... (T)he tests... have given India shakti, they have given strength, they have given India self-confidence."3

But it quickly became clear that the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the real command centre of the saffron brigade, had made an enormous miscalculation whose determining elements and assumptions bore no relation to contemporary international realities. This is why the effects and implications of Pokhran-II have been the opposite of what they were supposed to be, suggesting that the top decision-makers in the Government failed in their minimum responsibility to think through the post-Pokhran scenario. Contrary to the triple boast of shakti, strength and self-confidence, the real achievement, it is now clear, has been to bring about India's near-total isolation in the international arena and tremendously increase its vulnerability to strategic imperialist arm-twisting and pressure.

On May 18, 1998, Union Home Minister L.K. Advani, spelling out government policy thinking at the end of an official meeting in New Delhi on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, said the following: The Vajpayee Government had opted for a "pro-active approach" towards tackling militancy in the State and had served notice on Pakistan to "roll back its anti-India policy with regard to Kashmir." The new line was "to deal firmly and strongly with Pakistan's hostile designs and activities in Kashmir" and even the option of "hot pursuit" was not ruled out. Making the explicit assumption that India's "decisive step to become a nuclear weapons state has brought about a qualitatively new stage in Indo-Pakistan relations, particularly in finding a lasting solution to the Kashmir problem," Advani called upon the Pakistan Government to "realise the change in the geo-strategic situation in the region and the world." These remarks were widely reported in the Indian press, including The Hindu, May 19, 1998. This was ten days before Pakistan conducted its Chagai nuclear explosions. It appears that during the interregnum some of the BJP leaders, or at least Advani, entertained the delusion that with Pokhran India had acquired a strategic nuclear edge over Pakistan; they may have even believed that Islamabad was bluffing about its nuclear weapon capabilities.

But the swing towards capitulation began immediately after Pokhran-II, with the Government signalling the United States and its allies that India would now be willing to join the DGNB in some conditional way. In fact, the first inkling of the swing was provided by Mishra's May 11 statement offering to "consider being an adherent to some of the undertakings in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty," even if he attached to this offer a rider that, in the light of what we now know about the policy swing, was meaningless. The stance that India would be able to impose conditions or terms on the discriminatory global nuclear order and win "reciprocal" concessions as a quid pro quo for joining the CTBT was quickly abandoned without so much as an explanation.

Far from being able to assert any new-found 'shakti' in the international political arena, the Vajpayee Government has been forced to engage itself in a protracted, non-transparent negotiation with the United States over what India's nuclear weapons status can be allowed to be. It is clearly not a dialogue between equals. The Government's claim is that it is involved in some delicate security-enhancing process of working out nuclear India's new place in the sun with its chief "interlocutor", the United States. The reality is that the interlocutor has turned out to be an intervenor. For the first time in the history of India's nuclear policy, the United States is setting terms for, and shaping, the policy - driving it relentlessly towards signing and ratifying the profoundly inequitable CTBT, accepting previously rejected terms for the negotiation of a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT), and making an unending series of other concessions in the strategic, foreign policy and economic spheres in order to get the economic sanctions lifted and India's 'de facto' nuclear weapons status accepted. The adventure of conducting the nuclear explosions and rushing to declare India a full-fledged nuclear weapons state has turned out to be an akratic misadventure, a sort of riding the tiger.4

A full-page newspaper advertisement released recently, part of the propaganda fusillade with which a saffron brigade front has launched Campaign '99.

The effects of the nuclear explosions

The removal of the element of self-restraint from India's nuclear policy and the unilateral, unprovoked conversion of the nuclear option as per a pre-set agenda were extremely harmful developments for the following reasons:

1. Not surprisingly, the Pokhran nuclear explosions worsened regional tensions and already troubled relations with Pakistan. Whatever rationalisation the BJP and apologists of Indian nuclear weaponisation might have resorted to, Chagai was understood by objective observers everywhere as the answer to the destabilising Indian nuclear explosions: it is unlikely to have happened without Pokhran-II. With the eleven claimed explosions, South Asia became a much more dangerous place.

Pokhran-II and Chagai and the talk of weaponisation, deterrents, deployment and use of nuclear weapons for "self-defence" introduced a deadly new calculus in the Indo-Pakistan relationship. As part of the immediate political fall-out from Pokhran but preceding the Chagai explosions of May 28 and 30, 1998 came statements from top persons associated with the Government, notably Union Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani, that made them sound for a while like aspirant Unabombers. On both sides, scientists claimed that they had successfully contained the radioactive fall-out, but the provocative linkage sought to be established between the Kashmir issue and self-proclaimed nuclear weapons status raised questions about the unstudied effects of distant radiation on the processes of human thinking. All this suggests that part of the calculation of the Hindu Right was the delusional belief, which manifested itself during the interregnum between Pokhran-II and Chagai, in an Indian strategic nuclear edge.

After the initial euphoria over the explosions wore out and competitive claims, boasts and putdowns about the two South Asian nuclear programmes generated much public confusion and anxiety, some conciliatory signals were sent out to Pakistan in an attempt to manage 'safely' what looked very much like a nuclear stand-off. The resumption of the process of official dialogue at various levels, a process that must be welcomed and supported, led up to Prime Minister Vajpayee's bus ride to the border and the Lahore summit. However, it is clear that what has come out of the Lahore exercise is far short of the minimum required to bring the situation back under control.

What is more, the test-firing of the extended-range Agni-II intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) on April 11, 1999, obliging a tit-for-tat response from Pakistan in the form of the test-firing of the Ghauri-2 missile on April 13, and the subsequent testing of the Shaheen and Trishul missiles by Pakistan and India respectively, introduced major new tensions in the Indo-Pakistan relationship. With Pakistan's Government accusing the Indian Government of aggravating the conventional imbalance and derailing the normalisation process by introducing "a new weapons system" in the region, and promising to maintain a "reasonable deterrence in all areas, be it strategic or other weapons and indigenous missile programmes," it was clear that a risky and costly nuclear arms race was on and the process of bilateral dialogue was under serious question if not jeopardy.5

2. Pokhran-II, and the run-up to it as well as the follow-up, had an adverse and deplorable impact on Sino-Indian relations. Before the explosions, Defence Minister George Fernandes in some public pronouncements signalled the BJP-led Government's unfriendly attitude to socialist China. But it was Prime Minister Vajpayee's May 11, 1998 letter to U.S. President Bill Clinton that threatened to undermine Sino-Indian relations. The debris and dust had hardly settled at Pokhran when the following written message about "the rationale for the tests" was on its way to the White House:

I have been deeply concerned at the deteriorating security environment, especially the nuclear environment, faced by India for some years past. We have an overt nuclear weapons state on our borders, a state which committed armed aggression against India in 1962. Although our relations with that country have improved in the last decade or so, an atmosphere of distrust persists mainly due to the unresolved border problem. To add to that distrust that country has materially helped another neighbour of ours to become a covert nuclear weapons state. At the hands of this bitter neighbour we have suffered three aggressions in the last 50 years.6

This letter, which the Vajpayee Government naively appears to have expected to remain confidential, revealed part of the motivation and game plan behind Pokhran-II. It provided an unmistakable early hint to the United States that the Government of the Hindu Right would be prepared to play along with the idea of a strategic anti-China alliance. In a Frontline article written days after the Indian explosions, Aijaz Ahmad was among the first to call attention to this reactionary element in the game plan: "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... the long-term prospect is for a closer anti-China axis between the U.S. and India... Behind the BJP's bogus anti-imperialism and the American sanctions lies the prospect of a far-reaching alliance in a new Cold War."7 In the light of what has happened in the year after Pokhran-II, these observations must be recognised as prescient.

With the unfriendly statements preceding and following Pokhran-II, the heartening progress made since December 1988 in improving all-round relations with China was in danger of reversal.

Is it possible that we are making too much of the May 11, 1998 letter? Imagine a scenario in which Defence Minister Fernandes did not make his anti-China remarks and Prime Minister Vajpayee did not target China in his letter to Clinton by way of rationalising the Pokhran nuclear explosions. Would China have reacted differently and would Sino-Indian relations have been in better shape? The answer to both questions is yes. The problematical implications of the nuclear explosions for Sino-Indian relations, and the effect of the political targeting of China in order to find a rationalisation for the misadventure, are related but independent issues.

As Frontline readers may recall, I had the opportunity to visit China in August 1998 and test this hypothesis. I was able to explore, in some detail, the current state and future of Sino-Indian relations with Zhu Bangzao, official spokesman of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and several scholars specialising in the study of India, Sino-Indian relations and South Asia.8 Every one of them regretted the recent downturn in bilateral relations, identified the reasons for the setback, and set out clearly what needs to be done to bring the relationship back on track.

"I believe it is a wrong option for India to go nuclear," observed the official spokesman. But "it is a greater mistake for India to accuse China and to use it as a pretext to conduct nuclear tests. In fact, on May 11, when India conducted its first tests, China exercised restraint in expressing its position. At quite a late point of time, we expressed our regret. I believe it was against the world trend, so we had to express our position. On May 13, after India conducted its second round of nuclear tests and the Prime Minister had sent a letter to President Clinton alleging that China posed a threat, China issued a statement of its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which we haven't done for many years... It was a strongly worded statement. Why? We didn't understand why India blamed China."

In the months following Pokhran-II, the BJP-led Government did not make any overt move to further the reactionary project of the anti-China axis. It attempted, half-heartedly in official-level talks and informal exchanges at the political level, to repair the damage done to Sino-Indian relations by its statements and actions. Suggestions were made that External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh should visit China to take up this repair work at a higher level. China's officially stated, perfectly justified position is that "India must offer an explanation of what it has done. Secondly, Indian leaders should stop their accusations against China. Thirdly, the Indian Government should show its sincerity through deeds."9 Under these circumstances, progress has been slow.

India-China relations were under pressure again after the test-firing of Agni-II with Defence Minister Fernandes publicly claiming that "we have reached a point where no one, anywhere, can threaten us" and talking about the capability of the IRBM system to carry nuclear warheads, and with some hawkish security analysts talking openly about "a reliable nuclear delivery system to deter China", with a capability to "reach Beijing and Shanghai for sure."10

3. Pokhran-II and its follow-up have harmed India's reputation among peace-loving, democratic and progressive constituencies round the world. Independent India's consistent policy over half a century was to advocate the abolition of nuclear weapons, seen from the start as being against "the spirit of humanity". As early as 1948, India put forward a proposal at the United Nations for limiting the use of atomic energy to peaceful purposes and eliminating nuclear weapons; two years later it called attention to the grave dangers of the nuclear arms race, highlighting in addition its character as a drain on human and economic resources that needed to be channelled into development. Jawaharlal Nehru and Krishna Menon emerged as leading world campaigners for the abolition of nuclear weapons without compromise, and India came up with a series of specific, practical proposals, including a genuine test ban, focussing on the imperative need for abolition. The Six Nation Initiative launched by Indira Gandhi in 1983, the New Delhi Declaration by Rajiv Gandhi and Mikhail Gorbachev, and Rajiv Gandhi's 1988 Action Plan for a nuclear-weapons-free world order were important nuclear disarmament initiatives at the international level. A substantial part of Michael Foot's passionate and insightful book, Dr. Strangelove, I Presume, is an endorsement of these Indian initiatives and the opportunity they offered "to achieve the biggest breakthrough ever in genuine world-wide disarmament," and an indictment of Western government attitudes towards these initiatives.11 "The two key characteristics" of the Action Plan, an informed observer has pointed out in answer to tendentious post-Pokhran-II attempts to interpret the Rajiv Gandhi initiative in the service of the weaponisation-and-CTBT-joining cause, are that "it establishes a defined time-frame within which the objective of nuclear weapons elimination is to be achieved" and "sets out the identifiable, verifiable phases through which the goal of elimination is to be achieved."12

With their nuclear misadventure, the Government of the Hindu Right and the strategic affairs apologists have attempted to lay a rich fifty-year legacy to waste, and in doing so have alienated people of goodwill everywhere.

4. While the U.S.-led economic sanctions, based on unacceptable double standards, against India must be condemned and opposed, the BJP-led Government must take full responsibility for the additional pressure that the enforcers of the Washington Consensus have brought to bear on the Indian economy after Pokhran-II. Immediately after the nuclear explosions, a contradiction seemed to be developing between the Government's `soft' pro-liberalisation economic policy and its `hardline' hawkish nuclear and security stance. It turned out to be no real contradiction at all: even as nuclear adventurism swung quickly towards compromise with, or capitulation to, the discriminatory global nuclear order, the Government felt pressured to come up with a policy of economic appeasement.

The RSS-sponsored propaganda line that the economic sanctions imposed by the United States and some of its allies would not make much of a difference to a huge continental economy such as India's began to wear thin within weeks of the imposition of sanctions. The economist Jayati Ghosh, writing in June 1998, accurately predicted the real effects of economic sanctions.13 There was little doubt that Pakistan's "very fragile" economy would be hit harder by sanctions. It was also apparent that the direct effect of sanctions for India would be chiefly in terms of reduced bilateral aid, reduced multilateral financing and, more substantially, the closure of credit lines for companies dealing with or in India. Nevertheless "it is definitely not the case that these sanctions will not affect the economy much, or that their impact will be limited to the specific areas in which they have been imposed." The real effect of sanctions, she predicted, would be "much broader and more painful, if they succeed in reducing international investor confidence in a government that is desperate to attract foreign investment." Some months later, Strobe Talbott, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, would publicly advise India that a decline in the flow of foreign capital was "perhaps the most serious economic threat".14

The proof of the sanctions-immune Indian economy and the sanctions-defying official Indian stance can be seen in the actual response in both economic and political areas. The Government of the Hindu Right certainly behaved as though the country could not bear the reality of prolonged economic sanctions, especially when the economy is in serious difficulty. Meanwhile, the United States, adopting a carrot-and-stick approach, was able to play upon official Indian fears and apprehensions vis-a-vis the severity and duration of sanctions and soften up the policy response further.

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the Chagai test site in June 1998. India's nuclear tests worsened regional tensions and relations with Pakistan.

It is becoming increasingly clear to Indian policy-makers that actual nuclear weaponisation will not come cheap. Some quick estimates by economists suggest a ballpark range of Rs.40,000 crores to Rs.50,000 crores as the minimum cost of a nuclear weaponisation programme, defined as "acquiring a second strike capability comprising a triad delivery (that is, by aircraft, land-based missiles and submarines) of 150 bombs", over the next decade, which works out to Rs.4,000 crores to Rs.5,000 crores a year.15 These economists point out that this will be the additional burden coming on top of conventional defence expenditure; and also that escalation tends to be built into nuclear weaponisation programmes since an arms race is guaranteed. Such estimates must be very worrying to the Finance Ministry and to economic policy-makers. Further, this kind of profligate spending in the name of nuclear defence means an unconscionable diversion of public resources from what needs urgently to be spent on the social sector and development.

Finally, there is another big cost, which Jayati Ghosh characterises as "the most important economic cost" of the Pokhran-II misadventure.16 This is a period when the countries and institutions of the Washington Consensus have been imposing sovereignty-eroding policies on the less-developed countries. These policies force vulnerable economies to restructure in such a way that enormous new burdens are imposed on the masses of the people and doors are opened wider and wider to foreign capital. The appeasement policies followed by the BJP-led Government after the nuclear explosions have enabled the enforcers of the Washington Consensus, led by the United States, to tighten their grip over India's economic and political policies in a manner that could not have been foreseen in, say, early 1998.

5. India is weaker and much more vulnerable to external pressure and arm-twisting than it was pre-Pokhran-II and pre-Chagai and the United States, seeking to impose its strategic hegemony on the region, has emerged as the arbiter of the Indo-Pakistan nuclear stand-off and as the intervenor shaping the future of India's nuclear policy. On Day One, when Vajpayee wrote to Clinton blaming China for Pokhran-II, the stage was set for the new U.S. role as intervenor. Interestingly, in its calibration of sanctions against India and Pakistan, the United States has decided to resume the International Military Education and Training Programme (IMET) for India while keeping in place sanctions targeted at India's economic and technological development.17 The expert-level Indo-U.S. talks designed to see that India tightened its export control regime were an example of the extent to which the BJP-led Government was prepared to go to appease the United States. Kashmir and other outstanding issues between India and Pakistan have figured in the parallel Indo-U.S. and Pakistan-U.S. dialogue, and the resumption of the Indo-Pakistan dialogue on a wide range of issues, including Kashmir, seems, at least in part, the result of U.S. pressure on an increasingly vulnerable Indian Government. The BJP-led Government's conspicuous failure to come up with a forthright condemnation of the recent military aggression by the United States and the United Kingdom against Iraq and of the outrageously savage bombing of Yugoslavia by forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) also testified to an official Indian policy that lacked backbone.

6. Last and most important of all, the Government of the Hindu Right has exposed the people of India and Pakistan to the infinite horrors that nuclear weapons can inflict.

The political response

After the early euphoria wore out and some of the harmful effects became evident, there was deepening political and intellectual opposition to the BJP-led Government's nuclear adventurism. A number of political parties, including the Congress(I), joined the Left parties which, from the beginning, took a firm stand against Pokhran-II and nuclear weaponisation. A broad-based campaign against nuclear weapons with a coherent agenda opposing both nuclear adventurism and the policy swing towards capitulation to the DGNB took shape and protest meetings, rallies and conventions were organised in various centres round the country.

In the parliamentary debate that followed the nuclear explosions, the Opposition drawn from the Left parties, the Congress(I), the Janata Dal and some other parties clearly had the better of the exchange. The Vajpayee Government found itself very much on the defensive. Aside from representatives of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India, former Prime Ministers H.D. Deve Gowda, Chandra Shekhar and Inder Kumar Gujral, former Finance Ministers Manmohan Singh, P. Chidambaram and Pranab Mukherjee, and former Minister of State for External Affairs K. Natwar Singh effectively challenged the Government's decision to remove the element of conditional self-restraint from India's nuclear policy and to weaponise. They highlighted the dangerous escalation of tensions in the region, the harmful diversion of national resources to a nuclear arms race, and the break with longstanding Indian nuclear policy. Many speakers criticised the jingoism and militarism that had been inducted into India's foreign policy, particularly in relation to China and Pakistan.

In the campaign for the November 1998 Assembly elections, which dealt severe blows to the BJP's prospects of stabilising its rule at the Centre, Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi is reported to have attacked the Vajpayee Government's nuclear policy on several counts: for failing to prevent India's international isolation, for providing the opportunity for "everybody outside India to talk about our internal problems", including Kashmir, for mishandling relations in the region, and for displaying a wrong sense of priorities.18 "These people (the BJP)," she told a big crowd in Bikaner in Rajasthan, "are crowing with pride about the Pokhran nuclear blasts. But in the villages near Pokhran, people are struggling for drinking water. What type of development is this?" Referring to the international political fall-out of Pokhran-II, Sonia Gandhi observed caustically that "these developments have caused everybody outside India to talk about our internal problems", including Kashmir, "which they had no business doing." The Congress(I) president also came down heavily on the Vajpayee Government for the post-Pokhran "failures" that led to India's isolation in the comity of nations and to regional imbalances.

In instant reaction, the BJP spokesman, M. Venkaiah Naidu, charged that "to scoff at the tests and ridicule them amounts to scoffing at and ridiculing India's security concerns" and posed a rhetorical question: "Was she addressing an Indian audience or sending a message to the Pakistanis?"19

The saffron debacle in Rajasthan, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh proved beyond any doubt that the masses of the people, alienated by sharp rises in the prices of essential commodities and by the manifestly communal, divisive and inept performance of the Government of the Hindu Right, were not willing to buy the pseudo-nationalist and chauvinist agenda based on nuclear hawkishness, efforts to saffronise education, and minority-baiting.

However, the Rajya Sabha debate of December 1998 revealed that the democratic campaign against nuclear weaponisation had much work to do if the hope was to see India's nuclear policy return to a sound peace-oriented and independent track, once the BJP-led Government fell and a successor government took over. The most significant feature of the substantive debate was that Congress(I) speakers, notably Pranab Mukherjee, failed to differentiate themselves from the Vajpayee Government's nuclear policy approach.20

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott with India's special envoy Jaswant Singh during talks in New Delhi in July 1998. The U.S. has emerged as the arbiter of the Indo-Pakistan nuclear stand-off and as the intervenor shaping the future of India's nuclear policy.

In a detailed response to Vajpayee's statement on the agenda and trends of bilateral talks with the United States, Mukherjee seemed to accept many of the premises set out by the Prime Minister. Specifically, he seemed to accept nuclear weaponisation in South Asia as a fait accompli, noting that "the situation is that in this sub-continent we are having two nuclear weapons states" and further that "this is the ground reality... whether it is recognised or not recognised." The senior Congress(I) leader also had no objection to the agenda of the Indo-U.S. talks, acknowledging that "the Government decided and rightly so to have negotiations with the interlocutory countries" and that he would not like to "queer the pitch of negotiations by making observations which may affect this very delicate dialogue." On the CTBT, Mukherjee's observations were both non-committal and non-oppositional. He reiterated the Congress(I) position that the Government should not rush ahead with any decision to join the CTBT before forging a national political consensus on the issue.

If Mukherjee's compromising articulation of his party's stand on these issues could be taken to reflect the emerging Congress(I) position, the main Opposition party appeared to be preparing for a role when it would have to handle nuclear policy and these tricky issues in government. On the other hand, the fact that oppositional voices, such as Mani Shankar Aiyar's, Natwar Singh's and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh's, within the Congress(I) on Pokhran-II continue to be active suggests that a final decision on which way India's nuclear policy will go under a Congress(I)-led dispensation is yet to be taken and can be influenced by a clear-sighted and effective democratic campaign.

Explaining the misadventure

Was the BJP-led Government motivated to undertake its nuclear adventure by any anti-imperialist aim of challenging the unequal and discriminatory global nuclear order? Can it be given any kind of benefit of doubt in this regard? The answer is 'No'. As Prakash Karat points out in an analysis of the link between Pokhran-II and the BJP-RSS agenda, "the BJP has not been motivated by any anti-imperialist aims to challenge the existing nuclear order. It is essential to differentiate between anti-imperialism and jingoism. The build-up and rationale for the Pokhran tests was the security threat posed by China and its support to Pakistan. This was an obvious pitch to neutralise opposition from the United States."21

The cynical subversion of India's longstanding policy opposition to the DGNB held in place chiefly by the United States was evidenced by the following revelation made by the journalist and BJP Member of Parliament, Arun Shourie, in a debate in the Rajya Sabha on December 15, 1998. Shourie quoted External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh as explaining to him, in the manner of a schoolmaster to a favourite pupil, what had happened to India's nuclear policy with Pokhran-II: "Look at it as a crowded railway compartment. When you are trying to come into it, your perspective is one. When you are in it, you want the rules that will keep you in and keep the others out."22

A May 1998 demonstration in Hiroshima to protest against the Pokhran-II tests. Pokhran-II and its follow-up have harmed India's reputation among peace-loving, democratic and progressive constituencies around the world.

Various explanations have been proposed in the media (by the Government's spokespersons, by strategic affairs analysts, and by plain apologists) for why the Vajpayee Government undertook the nuclear explosions and weaponisation. The two most common explanations offered during the initial phase of euphoria sought to present Pokhran-II as a logical culmination of India's nuclear energy programme and policy and as an unstoppable achievement of India's scientific-technological capabilities. In a detailed statement made in Parliament within two weeks of the explosions, Prime Minister Vajpayee sought to make these explanations official by claiming that Pokhran-II was "a continuation of the policies" that put India on the path of self-reliance and independence of thought and action, and that nuclear weapons status was "an endowment to the nation by our scientists and engineers."23 These explanations either miss or deliberately cover up the link, well-acknowledged in RSS circles, between the Government's decision to acquire nuclear weapons and the Hindutva agenda of the BJP and, ultimately, of the RSS.

Giving nuclear teeth to a Hindu Rashtra has been part of the ideology and programme of the RSS from the 1950s. Prakash Karat offers the following insight:

The RSS has long dreamt of making India a chauvinistic-militaristic power based on majoritarian rule. For such a Hindu Rashtra to succeed, it must be able to mobilise people around an aggressive anti-Muslim platform and to create a permanent divide between Hindus and Muslims that can justify an authoritarian state. That is why in the 1960s, when India achieved nuclear capability, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh became a fervent advocate of making the bomb. The bomb was the mascot of the RSS long before the Ram temple acquired religious-political overtones for it in the 1980s. If the BJP's climb to power was aided by the temple-mosque controversy at Ayodhya, with the party coming to power at the Centre, the RSS has set out the next step in its long-term agenda of India making the bomb. The consequent escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan is part of the agenda. Viewed in this light, the retaliatory tests undertaken by Pakistan are what the RSS-BJP hoped would happen. Hence, to see the Pokhran tests as a natural culmination of India's nuclear policy from the 1950s is not only naive but harmful to the very basis of a secular democratic Indian state.24

The anti-China motivation was equally evident. Hindu Rashtra ideology has traditionally seen China, along with Pakistan, in hostile and fanciful terms. The project of giving nuclear teeth to a Hindu Rashtra is related to such threat perceptions. In 1965, RSS supremo "Guruji" M.S. Golwalkar characterised socialist China as "the one common menace to entire humanity" and looked forward to a superpower and global alliance to destroy it.25 "The possession of (the) atom bomb by Communist China," he advocated, "has made it imperative for us to manufacture the same. That alone will ensure confidence in the minds of the people and the armed forces about our ability to achieve ultimate victory. No doctrinaire or academic inhibitions should be allowed to come in the way."26

What is clear from this is that the Vajpayee Government, for all the limitations placed on the BJP's agenda by its coalition partners, launched its nuclear adventure in a pre-conditioned, pre-programmed way. Given the agenda and mindset, it followed as a matter of strategic political necessity that no one within the Government could be asked to carry out any kind of objective or professional appraisal of the policy requirements, that no one could be given a chance to question or criticise the pre-empted course and the assumptions and motivations behind it. Indeed, it turns out from the public testimony of the scientists at the New Delhi press conference of May 17, 1998 that the go-ahead for the Pokhran explosions was given on or around April 12, 1998 - that is, within a month of the communal Government's taking office.27

We now know from the joint general secretary of the RSS, K.S. Sudarshan, as well as from other sources that there was a plan to go in for nuclear explosions and weaponisation when Vajpayee formed the Government in 1996. But since that Government collapsed within 13 days, the plan could not be put into effect.28

This Cover Story comes a year after the nuclear explosions. One year is a sufficient time for the effects and implications of a benighted nuclear adventure to become clear to those who are willing to look at them without blinkers. Interestingly, the "What wrong did this man do?" propaganda ad begins with the sub-question,"Established India's self-respect by conducting the Pokhran blasts?" With India getting ready for its 13th general election, Pokhran-II must be exposed as the first big wrong committed by Vajpayee and his Government.

On August 6, 1998, Hiroshima Day, an anti-nuclear march in New Delhi, led by, among others, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Prakash Karat and CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan.

Other grave wrongs followed in quick succession. As Frontline pointed out editorially after the fall of the Vajpayee regime, it was communal and divisive with a vengeance. It enabled, and colluded, with the RSS' longstanding project of minority-baiting, allowing the most virulent and thuggish constituents of the saffron brigade to unleash a new level of hate politics and terrorise especially India's small Christian minority. The regime managed to put tremendous pressure on the system's commitment to secularism and the rule of law. It attempted, without a great deal of success but in a manner indicative of its future plans, to further the RSS project of saffronising education.

The BJP-led regime wantonly undermined bilateral relations with China and Pakistan, before attempting, unsuccessfully and unconvincingly, to repair some of the damage. Its economic policy was, in the words of Frontline columnist Jayati Ghosh, a policy of "placat(ing) foreign governments and international capital by offering economic concessions, through greater liberalisation, greater incentives for foreign investors and offering the opportunity to enter captive Indian markets and buy up domestic assets cheaply." By attempting to use the knife of Article 356 against the elected Government and Legislative Assembly of Bihar and threatening to use it elsewhere, it put destabilising pressure on federalism and cooperative Centre-State relations.

By its extra-constitutional manoeuvres and intervention in courts with a view to scuttling Jayalalitha's Special Court, or fast-track, trial on a battery of corruption charges, the Vajpayee regime sent out a most unsavoury public signal on this issue. Through its determination to hang on to power after forfeiting parliamentary legitimacy, it forced the polity to register a new low in sordid opportunism and horse-trading. In sum, the BJP-led regime set an unmatched - and difficult-to-match - record of chauvinistic, divisive, reactionary, anti-people misgovernance.

  1. Comment made to N. Ram by a top source within the nuclear energy establishment, quoted in the editorial, "The perils of nuclear adventurism", in Frontline, June 5, 1998.
  2. Written statement read out by Brajesh Mishra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, at a New Delhi press conference on May 11, 1998; reported in The Hindu, May 12, 1998.
  3. Interview to Prabhu Chawla published in India Today (May 25, 1998), released by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) on May 15, 1998.
  4. Akrasia in ancient Greek philosophy means not doing what you know to be right and, in fact, doing what you know to be wrong. Then why do it? Experts from Socrates and Aristotle to contemporary philosophers and legal scholars have offered varying explanations for akratic behaviour.
  5. Report, "Pak promises tit-for-tat, U.S. saddened", The Hindustan Times, April 12, 1999; report titled "Agni-II has derailed peace process: Sartaj Aziz", and editorial titled "Agni: a painful choice", Dawn, April 12, 1999.
  6. Letter of May 11, 1998 from Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee to U.S. President Bill Clinton, leaked immediately to The New York Times and published by it on May 13, 1998. The text of the letter was reproduced subsequently by several newspapers in India.
  7. Aijaz Ahmad, "The Hindutva weapon", in Frontline, June 5, 1998.
  8. See Cover Story titled "India & China: What Lies Ahead?", Frontline, September 25, 1998.
  9. Ibid.
  10. For Fernandes' remarks see The Times of India, April 12, 1999. For the remarks by hawkish security analyst Brahma Chellaney, see Barry Bearak's report, "India tests missiles able to hit deep into neighbour lands", The New York Times, April 12, 1999.
  11. Michael Foot, Dr. Strangelove, I Presume, Victor Gollancz, London, l999, p. 109.
  12. Mani Shankar Aiyar, "Rajiv Gandhi and the CTBT: a reply", The Hindu, February 9, 1999.
  13. See Jayati Ghosh, "On sanctions and being sanctimonious", Frontline, June 19, 1998.
  14. "U.S. looks to India's emergence as a global power: American Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott reveals the contours of Washington's South Asia policy", The Times of India, November 13, 1998.
  15. See C. Rammanohar Reddy, "The wages of Armageddon-III", three editorial-page articles in The Hindu, August 31, September 1 and 2, 1998; and Jayati Ghosh, "The Bomb, the Budget and the Economy", in Out of Nuclear Darkness: The Indian Case For Disarmament, MIND (Movement in India for Nuclear Disarmament), New Delhi, 1999, pp. 17-23.
  16. Jayati Ghosh, "The Bomb, the Budget and the Economy", cited earlier.
  17. This point is made by Prakash Karat in "BJP's Nuclear Gambit Leads to Surrender to U.S.", People's Democracy, November 22, 1998.
  18. Reports in The Hindustan Times and The Hindu, October 27, 1998.
  19. Report in The Hindustan Times, October 28, 1998.
  20. Proceedings of the Rajya Sabha, December 15, 1998.
  21. Prakash Karat, "A lethal link", in Frontline, June 19, 1998.
  22. Proceedings of the Rajya Sabha on December 15, 1998. The debate was on Prime Minister Vajpayee's "Statement Re: Bilateral Talks With United States".
  23. Suo motu statement by Prime Minister Vajpayee in the Lok Sabha on May 27, 1998.
  24. Prakash Karat, "A lethal link", in Frontline, June 19, 1998.
  25. M.S. Golwalkar, "Welcome Bigger War", in chapter 25, part 1, Bunch of Thoughts, revised and enlarged edition, Sahitya Sindhu Prakashana, Bangalore, 1996, p. 326.
  26. M.S. Golwalkar, "Nation at War", chapter 25, part 2, Bunch of Thoughts, cited above.
  27. Press Conference of May 17, 1998 in New Delhi, addressed by A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and Dr. R. Chidambaram.
  28. Report titled "Sanctions, a blessing in disguise, says RSS", in The Hindu, May 15, 1998, p. 15.

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