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May 20, 1998


Amberish K Diwanji

The BJP wanted glory, even if it meant putting the nation at risk

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India has finally crossed the Rubicon and conducted five nuclear bomb blasts and the prime minister has declared India a nuclear weapons state. As expected, the blasts have been condemned by the world at large, provoked outrage next door, and reportedly filled Indians with a sense of pride. Sure, there is some pride at what our scientists have achieved on a shoestring budget (just as there is in our missile gurus). It is also reassuring to know that we have in our possession weapons to scare off adversaries, real or imagined. But then we did know this for quite some time, just as we know that Pakistan has nuclear arms though they have not exploded any "devices."

So what was the rationale for exploding the nuclear bombs at this juncture? What was the great threat that needed nuclear bombs? Who was threatening India? And frankly, now that we have achieved the dubious "nuclear status," what really have we gained besides hogging the limelight for 72 hours worldwide? Have we become better off, more powerful, gained international stature?

In exploding the nuclear bombs, the Bharatiya Janata Party has done what no government dare do for 24 years. It makes one wonder what special knowledge the BJP possessed that made it so imperative to explode the bombs right now. Was the collective wisdom of persons such as Indira Gandhi (during whose government the first explosion was conducted on May 18, 1974), Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, Rajiv Gandhi, V P Singh, Chandra Shekhar, P V Narasimha Rao, H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral less than A B Vajpayee?

Weapons of mass destruction are not toys nor are they to be used to fulfill some individual or a party's personal aspirations. Today, it appears that more than any strategic or military reasons, domestic political aspects dominated the BJP's decision to go ahead with nuclear explosions. It is tragic that a party that has always claimed to have a far-sighted defence perspective should undertake an explosion simply to help keep Vajpayee in power longer and risk international outrage and the very success of India's economic reforms and growth.

Even India's first nuclear blast was carried out for reasons that appear suspiciously political. Certainly there was no strategic threat in 1974: Pakistan stood dismembered into two; China had proved ineffective in 1971 and recovering from its debilitating cultural revolution; and after the nadir in Indo-US relations, things were just beginning to improve. India was the unchallenged leader in South Asia and had salvaged its pride after the 1962 fiasco.

But in domestic politics, the then prime minister Indira Gandhi, compared to Durga devi in the immediate aftermath of the 1971 war, was increasingly vulnerable. Her popularity was disappearing and her opponents were seeking to oust her. Suddenly, the Pokhran blast came through. No one opposed it, and for a brief moment, Indira Gandhi was once again up there in the spotlight. Alas, it was to last for just over a year and in June 1975, she imposed the Emergency to simply remain in power. India had, without a clearcut policy or long-term strategic plan, invited opprobrium for her personal greed.

Today, Indian citizens are entitled to know what sudden and grave threat India faced. On the contrary, the scenario looked bright -- Kashmir is returning to normal, Pakistan is more intent on subversive attacks, there have been talks of opening another border trading post between India and China, and after Southeast Asia, the world was looking at India's economy with greater respect. Till May 11, 1998.

Exploding a bomb is a decision of timing, of striking when the iron is hot. In 1964, when China exploded a nuclear bomb, the then prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri took the decision not to follow China, despite the risks involved. He may have been wrong, but it was his decision despite the grave threats India faced then for another decade. Again, India could have exploded the bombs and signed the CTBT in 1995, when China too carried out explosions. Again, the government did not, for whatever reason. India should have waited for an opportune moment, an occasion when world opinion would be on India's side.

But perhaps the BJP reasoned it would not be in power (quite possible) and thereby miss a chance to become famous (or infamous). And ironically, if Islamabad explodes a bomb tomorrow, it will get sympathy, not condemnation.

Sure, Pakistan is a trouble maker, but Indian conventional armoury is more then enough for that country and Ghauri can clearly be met by Indian responses. And while Defence Minister George Fernandes has been making noises about China being the potential threat number one, the point is that it is not one right now. Yes, India must prepare to meet all challenges, but decisive steps must be taken at appropriate moments. An explosion today shows neither strategic thinking nor common sense, just political haste.

There is another question. The BJP does not have a majority in Parliament, and it won less than 30 per cent of the votes in the last general election. As a political party it has not been in government for even three months, and is at present leading a motley bunch of 18 partners who got together just to capture Delhi. Does such a party have the right to take decisions that puts at jeopardy the lives of millions of Indians, especially when there is no emergency situation? This government is unlikely to survive beyond a year, yet the repercussions of the explosions will be actually felt only after that time, meaning the next government will have to pick up the pieces.

By exploding the bombs, the BJP has invited strict sanctions against India. While their impact is still being debated, what is clear is that sanctions always hurt the poorest of the poor. Check out Iraq, facing some of the most stringent sanctions. The only ones paying the heavy price are the poor while Saddam Hussein continues to lord it over in Baghdad. The BJP's constituency has never included the poorest of India, and yet they will now have to pay the price for their decision.

It is all right for the middle class and the thousand of NRIs abroad to talk of pride, patriotism, and glory. One sincerely hopes they will put their money where their mouths have been, and fill in the coffers of India and help their poor brethren. And not just today in the flush of pride, but a year down when the bills come home and the blasts are stale news. Patriotism is easy in the comforts of the living room, it is very, very difficult on an empty stomach. Now, instead of a conventional arms race, there will be a nuclear arms race, and one that will also involve China. And the cost for the arms purchase will be paid for by the poor, as always.

And regarding pride, Japan and Germany have achieved far more after being devastated in World War II. They did it by making their countries so powerful that no one dared ignore their presence. The Indian establishment's desperation to be taken seriously has led India to nuclear bombs rather than a thriving economy, missiles rather than destroying poverty.

But it is clear that the BJP government wanted glory, even if it meant putting the nation at risk. A pathetic BJP government that lacks the guts and ability to silence Jayalalitha has diverted India's attention from its weakness to false pride in nuclear blasts. One is forced to ask if the BJP exploded the bombs only to to get mileage for the next snap poll. Can India's strategic concerns be hostage to politicking and electoral calculations?

The BJP has consistently worked hard to destroy India's image of a country committed to certain values and morals. Was it not the same BJP that broke the Babri Masjid despite promising not to do so? Today the BJP insists it has only peaceful intentions, but tomorrow, some may well argue what is the purpose of simply stockpiling weapons? If we have them, let us use them may well be the logic, and the sooner the better because we still have the advantage over our troublesome neighbour. What is to prevent Advani and Vajpayee from deciding to use it tomorrow against Pakistan to teach Islamabad a lesson? And perhaps help the BJP win the next election.

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