THE HINDUSTAN TIMES, NEW DELHI, 14 MAY 1998
India’s bomb tests are morally shameful and politically foolish. Any act which legitimises or promotes the production or deployment of these evil weapons of mass destruction whether by the US, China, India or any other country deserves to be criticised at least on moral grounds even if the overall judgement is that such considerations must be subordinated to ‘national security concerns’.Indeed, historically India had always cited the moral factor as a major reason why it would not behave like nuclear elites elsewhere. That nobody amongst the new army of applauders has even bothered to point to the moral dilemma intrinsic to this act reveals most strikingly the general mood of the Indian elite and strategic community. But since nobody, barring opponents, are bothered by this, let us go to the political dimension.
Amongst the numerous reasons why this act is so foolhardy, there is space here only to highlight one – it unleashes a political dynamic which is outside India’s control and whose ultimate end cannot yet be forecast. More precisely, there will now be tremendous domestic pressure on Pakistan to carry out its own test in retaliation. If this happens, which is more than likely, the pressure on India to go a step further and openly deploy nuclear weapons will become intense. As it is, there is a powerful lobby both inside the BJP and government as well as outside it which is pushing for India to do this. And, of course, once this happens, Pakistan will follow suit and the regional nuclear arms race will begin.
Expect the bomb lobby to react in two ways to such a development. On the one hand, there will be the appeal to national chauvinism about the need to counter any Pakistani nuclear threat in the name of national security, ignoring that Pakistan is the reactor. On the other, there will be the claim that it doesn’t really matter and that, in fact, Pakistani acquisition and deployment of nuclear weapons capability will enhance its self-confidence and therefore improve the prospects of peace through active nuclear deterrence. What will be missing will be any recognition of the simple truth obvious to all but the ‘nuclear expert’ that the initiation of such nuclear rivalry both reflects and qualitatively exacerbates the hatreds, tensions and suspicions that have made this the only part of the world that has had for over 50 years a continuous hot-cold war between two countries, and with no end in sight.
It doesn’t stop here. For all the talk of the Chinese nuclear threat against India, this supposed threat has always been an abstract one arising not from the actual behaviour of China but from two other directions. First, there has been the deceptive slant given by vested Indian interests to the interpretation of the China-Pakistan relationship. This has falsely been made out to be a near nuclear alliance when it is actually nothing more than a relationship of cooperation in dual use of materials and technologies and arms carried out for mutual economic, technological, commercial and political benefit. One can imagine the uproar there would be in this country if China were to supply Pakistan with its most advanced fighter aircraft or help it set up two nuclear reactors. Yet this is exactly what Russia is doing with India. The Pakistani hawk who screams that this indicates an alliance between Russia and India which is strategically directed against Pakistan is as fundamentally mistaken as the Indian hawk who makes the opposite but equivalent claim about the China-Pakistan relationship.
Second, there has been the deliberate and calculated invocation of China as potential enemy at this juncture, even at the risk of worsening China-India relations for no justified reasons. The purpose of Fernandes’ recent tirade against China now stands revealed. It was to lay down the ideological rationale for the bomb tests to come. This could not have been pegged to claims about Pakistan’s nuclear provocation because of its essentially reactive diplomacy. It could only have been pegged to the need to counter a future threat from a ‘potential’ enemy, China, or on the need for India, too, to be seen as a ‘great’ power, win world ‘respect’, etc. This last factor is the real reason for the bomb tests. This action is not the expression of a mature, calm, confident and relaxed nationalism, but of the very opposite! For a long time now what we have been witnessing in India, is an insecure, tension-filled mood of frustrated and uncertain nationalism amongst the Indian elite and middle classes. It is precisely because this promotes the search for a more aggressive ‘resolution’ of existing problems that the BJP-RSS combine has been able to make the political inroads that it has.
It is not in the least a coincidence that the party which has pursued the most aggressive and viciously communal form of cultural nationalism has also been the party with the most aggressive nuclear position. It has been the only party whose official position was that it would “exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons” as distinct from merely keeping the option open. Fifty years after independence there is a widespread sense within the Indian elite, that the country has not ‘made it’ internationally. China has its economic miracle, smaller far eastern countries are treated as success stories, India is not listened to seriously, we are a great civilisation, we must shape the twenty-first century along with other great powers, etc. These are the sentiments that dominate. This is a context eminently suited to the near desperate search for some perceived short-cut that can somehow change such a situation or be thought to do so. There has been no change in the external environment or in threat perception that explains what has now happened. It has everything to do with changing self-perceptions.
The sheer lack of sobriety in much of the public response, the near-hysterical character of the adulation is not only pathetic but deeply disturbing because of the out-dated mind-set it reveals. In the more complex and difficult world we live in, great power status of the conventionally sought kind is neither as important as it was once (and still) thought to be, nor as easy to attain, nor pivoted as significantly on military might. Certainly, nuclear weapons are not only irrelevant to the issue, but so self-defeating as to be part of the problem, not the solution.
After what has happened there are still two vital paths to pursue. The first is to call a halt to the line where it now is and to adamantly oppose further movement by India towards open development and deployment of nuclear weapons or indeed any further tests. This is a path which both anti-nuclearists, appalled at what has happened, and many of those who support the tests can together follow. The other path must be travelled by those who have supported the tests but are rightly hostile or worried by the way in which the BJP has hijacked the nuclear agenda. Even as they may feel or publicly declare that these tests are desirable and still contribute to a strong India, it will be the most shameful abnegation of their political and moral responsibility if they do not also declare publicly that they are motivated by a vision of Indian nationalism that is fundamentally opposed to the ugly anti-democratic, communal, intrinsically belligerent Hindutva that is the guiding force of the BJP-RSS project for constructing a Hindu rashtra.
The latter are systematically seeking to hijack the discourses on national security, national interests, national greatness, etc, to legitimise their versions of all these and to use the impact of these tests as part of that larger project. This cannot be effectively confronted by doing what the Congress or UF have done – clamouring for a share of the credit. The feeble official response of the CPI and CPI-M is equally disgraceful. This can only be done by a consistent differentiation of one’s own politics and an equally consistent attack on the ideology of the BJP-RSS even on issues where there seem to be an agreement. Is it too much to hope that the ‘strategic experts’ and others who approve of the tests but not of the BJP-RSS will do as much?