Antonin Artaud could not have done better. The timing was so immaculate and surreal.
Celebrating the 50th year of our independence, Atal Behari Vajpayee erased in one stroke the legacy of the national movement and its modernist aftermath: Panch Shila, non-alignment, non-violence and the dream of a world of alternatives. It was a killing of the fathers that Freud would have been intrigued about.
The props were simple. A man pretending to be prime minister. The national flag as backdrop. Vajpayee announced that “India today carried out three underground nuclear tests at Pokhran at 3.45 pm.” A quick terse announcement. A political statement to be followed by a technical briefing. One correspondent even felt it was like an American press conference. As American as apple pie and Hiroshima.
The obscenity lay at several levels. It was not just the presence of Pramod Mahajan with a fascist bully boy smile, standing at the back playing Pierre Salinger in pyjamas. It was the timing.
On Buddha Purnima, India exploded three nuclear bombs. The era of the pseudo-secularists has actually arrived. Only a civilisation illiterate about itself would knit the bomb and Buddha together. Yet strangely, Buddha was the signifier of continuity for both nuclear events. When Pokhran took place in 1974, the news of the blast was conveyed to Mrs Gandhi as “Lord Buddha has smiled”. History repeats itself, first time as a tragedy and second time as illiteracy. Gandhi was once asked what do you think of Western civilisation? And he said “It would be a good idea”.
If he were to return today and had been asked “What do you think of Indian civilnisation”, he might remark “that would also be a good idea”. In fact, the first thing that went out of the window was the ideal of a civilisation with its notions of myth, religion, morals, good conduct and tradition. We abandoned it all for history and the Nation State. Welcome to the amoralism of the Patriot Games. The Patriot Games is played on a subtle chequer board. Let us state its moves.
Step one. It enacts the national movement as a simulation. There is a new sense of imperial oppression and there are new liberators. First, there is George Fernandes, the eternal adolescent and the army as chorus complaining about China. There is a touch of caring here. When George talks of snowmobiles for our jawans, I love him for it. Then there is the drumbeat of middle class machismo overthrowing Babar, Clive and Churchill in cafes and the Internet.
Militarise. Muscularise. Masculinise goes the modernist litany from Mambalam to Matunga. It is a plea for technology as a sign of toughness. If only we would get our act together, we would be taken seriously. We have the fourth largest army in the world. We have the third largest pool of scientific talent. Beware. We are one of the six in the nuclear club.
Beating the drums are two kinds of shakas; the RSS and the scientists in designer khakis. The Ramannas and the Iyengars and the Brahmin hawks like K. Subramaniam. Hearing Raja Ramanna say “Our boys have done a wonderful job” reminded me of an old Groucho Marx joke. Groucho is pretending to be a scientist. He gets up and says “I am going to make a great contribution to science. I am planning to retire”. I am reminded of the old men of Indian science, the Menons, the Swaminathans, the Ramannas. I wish they would retire. They have done enough damage to the idea of peace, sustainable development and the transfer of technology. This generation of scientists are not like the Ramans, Sahas or Kosambis. It is a generation of clerks salivating at every bell ring from the state. The Nation State. Sorry, the National Security State which is against democracy and peer review, which will not even allow a simple economic audit of the Indian nuclear programme. Scientific connivance and political illiteracy make perfect bedfellows.
Step two. Stage a spectacle. Carry out a controlled experiment with all its grandeur and secrecy. A circus no one saw but everyone has heard about. Did you hear that India exploded three bombs at 3.45 in the afternoon? A state secret to be shared by all. What more could a democracy want? The first three experiments encapsulate the history of the bomb from Pokhran 1974 to Pokhran 1998. There is progress for you. India has joined the nuclear club. Club is the key word. Not community. Not movement. Club. Suddenly a whole nation feels upwardly mobile. We have arrived, after a long pregnancy. Look at the way we read our history. The early efforts at nuclearism were shrouded in ambiguity and hypocrisy, with weakness. Remember how Narasimha Rao backtracked under US pressure. But now we have moved from ambiguity to clarity. Clarity. A bully is clear. So are the stupid. Truth is more complex. But we have outgrown truth as we become a national security state.
Step Three. Declare a holiday. Create a festival. Tell the people the bomb is for them. Fernandes is already claiming people should be involved in security. Involvement… Participation. The lovely language of World Bank governance. Now we know his sibling. Wonder what his German socialist friends think of Fernandes. Hello, Petra Kelly. Didn’t know your Judas friend, did you? When Petra died, George and Jaya Jaitley shed crocodile tears over her “suicide” at Gandhi Peace Foundation. Wonder how Petra would have reacted to this green Judas had she lived? Khadi and Nuclear bombs can only exist in com-plementarity in a mind like George Fernandes’. The radio-active Gandhian.
There is a tremendous sense of euphoria, of achievement. Of competence. Of David against the Goliaths. Every – almost every – Indian stands proud at being nuclear, of becoming Goliaths. Look at the long lines waiting with flowers to congratulate Vajpayee. The Prime Minister stands bedecked and bewildered like the bridegroom of the year. Our tryst with destiny is complete. Everyone feels nationalistic. Pass out the barfis. It could be a hockey match. A Tendulkar century. A riot or a nuclear blast. We are happy with all four spectacles. Our scientific Tendulkars have struck effortlessly five times in a row. The crowd is berserk with joy. Yet there is a sadness when everything is a spectacle. A match. A riot. A blast. When there is little difference between these events. Worse. People forget that the worst kind of consumerism is the unquestioning consumption of science.
The BJP got it right. It knows that nationalism is tough to beat as a populist idea. After all, caste is fragmentary and class is divisive but the Nation represents the whole. Look at the way dissent is silenced. Every political group wants to be implicated, get a lick of the nuclear ice-cream. The Congress insists that it was Rajiv and Indira who made the ice stick. The UF insists it is a three-in-one ice-cream. The first layer belongs to Indira, second to Gujral and the third to BJP. A truly coalitional ice-cream. A national nuclear ice-cream. Even communists are salivating wondering if there is a Soviet component they could lay claim to. What is worse, they know you can’t criticise nationalism. When Vajpayee fights the US imperial bully, Bardhan and Basu will clap. Dissenters sound silly. Praful Bidwai on BBC sounds as if he has got up from a hangover and murmurs the first thing that comes into his head, that “It is a BJP plot to look decisive.” He is right but when he mouths it, the message has all the inanity of “the butler did it”. The audience orchestration is superb. Gujral loves it. And Ramanna. And K. Subramaniam. And Jasjit Singh. Throw in a touch of Raja Mohan and Bharath Karnad. It is an orgy of agreement. Prim and proper. All the newspapers quote IAEA as saying “it was not illegal”. The patriot games of Vajpayee beats any Asiad spectacle of Indira and Rajiv. Even luck favours the BJP. Abdul Kalam is the ideal citizen and scientist. Ascetic as P.C. Roy. As nationalist as Meghnad Saha. A bachelor wedded only to science. You don’t get them better. It is as if Aslam Sher Khan were to score the winning hockey goal against Pakistan. All of India seems to be celebrating. We have beaten China, Pakistan, USA, Germany and Britain. We have gate crashed into history. Every Indian feels proud. We have won the Battle of Plassey, the Swadeshi struggle, the 1962 China war, all at one go. It is victory as virtual reality. Saare jahan se accha, ye nuclear India hamara.
There is truth in the lie. A convincing truth. A fragment of history. The nuclear club has been a coercive and hypocritical one. It is a search for monopoly. A demand of good behaviour by the one nation that has used the bomb twice on a people. The amoralism is stunning. Whether it is Thatcher, Blair, Bush or Clinton, you can’t get lower than that. Third rate moralism dished out with equal ladles of Dale Carnegie and Ron Reagan. The Original sin pretending to be the Immaculate Conception. The Indians were brilliant in their counter response. Not since Krishna Menon played Chanakya in English were Indians so pleased with their own performance. It was the debate on CTBT that convinced India that it was on the right track. Arundhati Ghosh was superb as Rani of Jhansi. Translate that as Joan of Arc for first world illiterates. It showed us as powerful dissenters of the global world. That set the stage for our moral crusade. But we were not just heroic. We were realists. It is this transition from Nehruvian idealism to global pragmatism that needs to be emphasised. It is like switching from the old Ambassador car to the new Maruti. Morality is now more slick, mobile and profitable.
Implied in this is a sense that mere goodness is weak, that good guys are dead guys. What one needs are good guys with nuclear sharp shooters. Acquire the nuclear colt, look the enemy dead in the eye and talk of a nuclear free world. Peace is what tough guys understand. Suddenly every Indian feels a nuclear bulge in his biceps. The akhada langurs show it to the world. The Mani Dixits play it down. To see this in operation one had to watch his performance in Aap ka Faisala, Aap ka Adalat. It was a debate between Dixit and Kanti Bajpai, professor of International Relations at JNU. Bajpai is the peacenik as scholar. Quiet. Quietly courageous. Full of question marks and footnotes. Bajpai understands peace. He knows it is a slow bumbling process and Indians have played a great role in its evolution. He is honest, ready to cite chapter and verse when Indians have sinned. Ironically he appears shy, hesitant, ectomorphic. A PhD, still fresh behind his ears.
Mani Dixit is like an old bear, amiable with a pot of honey inside, oozing the experience of power. The foreign secretary as hero. Talking to his IIC group. He exposes the hypocrisy of USA, the nukespeak of China. He underlines the Indian efforts to be moral. The struggles with complexity and ambiguity; of how Nehruvian idealism was whipped into muscular pragmatism. It is time to tell the world we are tough like you, that we are high calorie nuclear heroes.
Kanti Bajpai is sincere, persistent but Dixit is tough, clipped, amiably dismissive. A politician who smells a crowd. History is about tough guys. No more subaltern pap, old chap. We are pragmatists now. Love me, love my bomb. The crowd loves it, applauds, happy to be a part of history. Even compere Manoj Raghuvanshi’s moustache quivers like a weathervane in the right direction. How many Agni missiles did Gandhi have?
To the potent nationalist gin, the BJP adds the right twist, a touch of swadeshi lime. The bomb is Indian. Conceived by Indian science. Executed by Indian technologists. We don’t smuggle technology like Dr Khan. No nuclear Dawoods please, we are Indian. Our nuclear bomb is as home grown as Abdul Kalam. The MIT in his bio data stands for Madras Institute of Technology. Between Kalam, K. Subramaniam, Dixit, Ramanna the swadesi hum kissi se kum nahin is echoed clearly.
There is a hijacking and distortion of discourse that we must challenge. The new Dandi march must begin at the villages of Pokhran by challenging the trustees of this new official morality. We have to state that the above cast of characters cannot define our moral universe, any more than ethical mutants like Clinton or Thatcher can. We have to apply to the bomb, the Gandhian model of technology as one enhancing innovation, community, debate, trusteeship, and love.