Friday, June 13, 2008

Half-baked ideas lead to national indigestion

In recent weeks the government of India observed two anniversaries in two different ways. The tenth birthday of the Pokhran II nuclear weapons tests was observed by ignoring it. On the other hand, the twentieth anniversary of Rajiv Gandhi’s plan to promote complete nuclear disarmament was celebrated by an international seminar, with the Prime Minister, the External Affairs Minister, and the Minister of Panchayati Raj, holding forth on the virtues of nuclear disarmament and pressing its case anew. You could interpret this in two ways. The simplest would be to say that New Delhi acted with its traditional hypocrisy — accumulating nuclear weapons and missiles, even while preaching the virtues of disarmament.
My interpretation is different. Like most people I can live with hypocrisy, a commonly visible trait in individuals and institutions. But I think that the government’s stand on the nuclear issue is characteristic of our establishment’s confusion. They are confused on caste, class, economic policy, and not surprisingly nuclear strategy. Being confused is a very human, and even endearing, trait in individuals, but when applied to governments it can be dangerous and destructive.


Confusion here is not meant in the dictionary sense of being bewildered, but of being mentally caught between two stools. India has had a history of confused and confusing leaders. P.V. Narasimha Rao ushered in market reforms claiming that they were merely an extension of that great socialist Jawaharlal Nehru’s policies. That same kind of sophistry did not work in the case of the Babri Masjid which came crashing down, in no small measure a result of confusion of policy being articulated from New Delhi. V.P. Singh was the only prime minister who owned up to the fact that his job was to confuse people. He called it managing contradictions, but the actual aim was to confound everyone and come out winner. He tried it with the Mandal quota issue and has bewildered the Indian polity ever since.
So today we have a Prime Minister and an External Affairs Minister who hold forth passionately on the need to rid the world of nuclear weapons, forgetting no doubt, that they are also members of the Political Council of the Nuclear Command Authority, which has the sole right to order devastating nuclear strikes against our adversaries.
India’s nuclear policy has been dangerous because of its ambivalence, not, as is often assumed, its ambiguity, which is a legitimate tactic in itself. Between the 1960s and 1980s, India ran with the hares and hunted with the hounds. It was a leader of the disarmament camp, participating in each and every call for the abolition of nuclear weapons. At the same time it built up a nuclear estate which was also involved in making nuclear weapons. In the 1980s and 1990s, a dangerously unstable situation developed as India dithered on crossing the threshold, while Pakistan raced to do so.
While clarity of thought and deed is a virtue everywhere, it is a vital necessity in the world of the military. Unfortunately, India has specialised in giving wrong signals and promoting insecurity. In 1947, following official knowledge that Pakistan had used its forces to fight in Jammu & Kashmir, India still avoided widening the war. The price was paid by the 1965 Operation Gibraltar when Pakistan, misreading signals, launched an attack on Kashmir under the fond belief that India would confine the war to the state. Arguably wrong signals, which, in this case, meant an over-defensive posture, led to the Kargil adventure as well.
Similar confusing signals have been sent out by tests, earlier of missiles, currently of anti-ballistic missile systems. Does India believe in nuclear deterrence, or does it not? I have a feeling that the political establishment is itself not clear on this, yet it is allowing the DRDO to build anti-missile systems that could undermine deterrence and destabilise the nuclear equations in South Asia.
Our latest signal is the allegedly integrated cell for space warfare. A cell is neither here nor there. As of now there are no signs that India intends to do anything about the increasing use of space for military purposes. Yet when its defence minister chooses to talk about it, he comes with a whimper, rather than a bang.


Having crossed the threshold, India has dithered on deployment of nuclear weapons. Our casual approach to the issue was apparent when our hurried no-first-use pledge developed feet of clay. In 2002 when the Indian army threatened to march into Pakistan in the wake of the terrorist attack on Parliament on December 13, 2001, there was sudden realisation that perhaps the pledge did not cover Indian troops who were on Pakistani soil. So after the crisis was over in January 2003, the government issued a clarification declaring that a nuclear attack on Indian forces “anywhere” could invite nuclear retaliation from us. For good measure, and characteristically, they also threw in the clause that said chemical and biological weapons attacks would merit nuclear retaliation as well, though both Pakistan and China, like India, have given guarantees under the Chemical Weapons Convention not to use chemical weapons under any circumstances.
The latest and somewhat pathetic manifestation of the Indian approach is over an arsenal that barely exists in a ready-to-use form. Some want the Indian right to test written into the Indo-US nuclear deal. Others want better and improved thermonuclear weapons, and say India should not give any commitment as to what should be the size of the Indian arsenal because, as they claim, “you never know what may happen in the future.” This wonderfully vague claim goes against the grain of contemporary developments where nuclear weapons states are trying to reduce their arsenals. One way of doing this is to declare an upper limit. The British have said that they have around 200 nuclear weapons, the French have most recently officially declared their number to be less than 300. Estimates for the Chinese and the Israeli arsenals are the same. But for the Indian chicken hawks the sky is the limit because that frees you from thinking and acting precisely on our nuclear posture.
Just why we are like that, is an answer that historians or maybe social psychologists can provide. My own pop-psychology take on this is that India is an incomplete nation. That is why you hear little about what it means to be in India and an Indian from a Karunanidhi, a Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, or Lalu Yadav, Mayawati and, increasingly, Narendra Modi. Most Indians have other identities that come before their sense of Indianness. Other nations, too share this phenomenon of citizens with multiple identities, but their national identity has primacy. As of now India has yet to decide politically whether it is a federation or a confederation. In these circumstances all national concepts are tentative, confused, as is thinking about national security.


There are parties which try to get us think in a national manner, but look at them: The RSS/BJP’s sense of Indianness is not just medieval, it is positively antediluvian, based on medieval mythological texts, or early 20th century European political ideas. As for the Congress, the party of modernisation is now in the vice-like grip of a declining medieval dynasty. For the Left, the only nationalism that matters is that of China. So we lack a sharp sense of nationhood and what is required to foster and protect it.
At a social function at the seminar on disarmament I was asked by some participants from abroad as to what was the significance of India hosting this conference and the impressive speeches of Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee and Mani Shankar Aiyar. At the end of the day I am not sure whether we are for armament or disarmament. All I know is that we are doing neither.
This recalls a King Crimson song from the 1960s:

Confusion will be my epitaph.
As I crawl a cracked and broken path.
If we make it we can all sit back
And laugh
But I fear, tomorrow I’ll be crying
Yes I fear, tomorrow I’ll be crying

This article first appeared in Mail Today June 12, 2008

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