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June 29, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend Pritish Nandy

Re-engineering Pokhran II

It is no use arguing over Pokhran II. What has happened has happened. You and I may not exactly agree over whether India should have exploded a nuclear device and risked such widescale international sanctions. But the deed has been done and we must now focus on the next step.

Which is, frankly, how to convert this crisis into an opportunity.

There are many ways to do this. But they all start at the same point. Understanding the precise nature of the crisis and replacing rhetoric with strategy.

This means: Repositioning Pokhran II. To our internal publics as well as to the world at large.

Pokhran II must no longer be seen as an act of brainless belligerency. Muscle flexing. India versus Pakistan. Eventually leading to India versus the world. That may please the Rambos at home but would drive us into a dark, hopeless corner in every international forum, hurt our economy beyond words, impoverish India.

With the stock market hurtling southwards, real estate prices crashing, the rupee in free fall we cannot risk the luxury of political naiveté any more. The sanctions are going to hurt, where we scream ouch! or not. Millions of poor people are going to be hit when the price of petroleum products hits the roof (in December, when global prices are likely to firm up) and inflation enters double digits.

It is no use shutting our eyes to this scary reality.

It is no use gloating over the awful state of Pakistan's economic health. It is no use reiterating again and again that sanctions will hurt Pakistan much more than they will hurt us, the weaponisation programme will cripple them. Of course it will. But that will not make our hurt any less. Our future will be as jeopardised as their's.

And pray, what happens if Pakistan turns around and accepts the CTBT today? Where will that leave India? After all this raucous posturing, will we also go down on bended knees and sign the document we swore we would never look at? Where would all this heroism go?

Maybe that, if nothing else, is the right reason to start talking to our neighbours. Now.

After all, we cannot wish them away. Neither is it possible, in today's world, to erase them off the atlas. Except in our jejune political fantasies.

In fact, we are both aware that our nuclear programmes have nothing to do with each other. Contiguous neighbours cannot drop bombs on one another without blowing themselves up. If we were to bomb Islamabad, we would devastate huge parts of India at the same time. If Pakistan was stupid enough to bomb Delhi, it would destroy them almost as much as it will destroy Delhi. Both of us know this even though we may not say so in public.

Neither of us are stupid enough to believe that nuclear weapons can protect us from each other. This is a position we take to satisfy our own people, give them a bright little patriotic lollipops to suck. Saffron in India. Green in Pakistan. When everything else is going wrong, jingoism is an easy, convenient political ploy to whip up passion among the illiterates.

There is nothing wrong in this as long as we know exactly what we are doing. As long as we are not suckered into believing what we are saying to others for effect.

Pokhran II began as a solution to our own internal problems. When the three witches of Macbeth kept brewing their filthy, frothy potion of political intrigue and dirty blackmail, the BJP government found an instant solution in testing the bomb. It brought the nation together and diverted attention away from the rain and thunder and lightning that their tormentors were inflicting on the polity even as they boiled rats' tails and scorpions' sting to terrorise a hapless Vajpayee.

Now is a good time to restrategise, reposition Pokhran (and its response from Pakistan) for what it actually means. The global re-arrangement of power. What India (and, for that matter, Pakistan) were actually telling the world was the simple fact that the five nuclear states can no longer hold everyone to ransom. We are all knocking on the doors of heaven, as Jim Morrison would say, and you cannot keep us out just because you were there first.

That is the real message of Pokhran II.

That nations like India and Pakistan may be poor but we are not powerless. We cannot be kept out any more. We cannot be ignored. We cannot be bullied into not doing this, not doing that. The West must learn to accept us for what we are.

We may not be exactly model nations by their yardstick but that does not mean they can push us around.

If this message goes down strongly, the entire picture of the world will change. India and Pakistan will emerge as heroes for all those who resent the hegemony of the West and its nuclear power states, who want a new, more realistic, more reasonable order to emerge. Who see India as a moral nation, offering new moral alternatives in a rapidly changing world. For them, Pokhran II will be a historic watershed, when a nation (poor and vulnerable as it may be) chose to reassert the right of weaker nations to nuclear capability, to challenge the existing aristocracy of power.

To make this argument convincing, India and Pakistan must quickly start a dialogue among themselves. For instance, outlandish as it may sound today, they can start working towards a pact that would forbid them from attacking each other first and, eventually, allow them to inspect each other's nuclear facilities so that they can begin to trust one another. After all, neither of them can actually afford to attack each other. So why not get real and put this down in paper so that both nations can now move ahead without fear or a nagging sense of threat?

There are two ways of looking at it.

One way is to fight with your neighbours and get your knuckles rapped by the rest of the world. Both you and your neighbours look foolish while others get away with bullying the two of you.

The other way is to get real, make up with your neighbours and take on the world together. So that you can realign it in the light of your own needs, your own worldview. Where you are no longer seen as a second class nation but as an equal. May not be in terms of wealth and power. But certainly in terms of positioning.

Like most Indians, I would like to believe that the second way makes more sense. Even though it may not cater to our most deeply nurtured phobias. But it as an opportunity, an excellent opportunity to open a meaningful, realistic dialogue with our neighbours whom we have no option but to live with. And an equally important opportunity to open a meaningful, realistic dialogue with the United States who have spearheaded the sanctions against us. In a global economy, we cannot afford to ignore our largest trading partners, however much we may disapprove of their browbeating tactics.

Heroic politics is out of date. What we need is global vision, pragmatism and, yes, oldfashioned wisdom. The wisdom to avoid confrontations that cannot be won.

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