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May 27, 1998


Amberish K Diwanji

The China Syndrome

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It is now over two weeks since India went nuclear. While chest-thumping remains more than less the order of the day, many have begun to question the government's motives and wisdom in going nuclear at a time when there was really no need. Shockingly, there has been no clear enunciation from the government or the policy makers on the reason for going nuclear. The closest reason is that it was part of the BJP manifesto. In fact, it now emerges that the BJP wanted to go nuclear when they first led the 13-day wonder in 1996. So anything that Vajpayee or the BJP says about strategy and defence remains open to suspicion.

The BJP manifesto also talks of a Ram temple, of a uniform civil code, and of scrapping Article 370. But implementing any of these three will mean the end of Vajpayee's government. Exploding the bomb will only mean that some middle class people will go on television to talk of how proud they feel, ignoring the fact that some poor people will suffer more at a time when no such pain is called for, when no direct and immediate threat lurks!

According to various snap polls conducted by many newspapers and magazines, about 80 per cent or so of the respondents approve the tests. Very interesting, but then, there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. Who were the people surveyed?

Was it the beggar who waits outside restaurants to seek alms? Was it the poor child who pops up at every traffic light, pleading for a little change, barefoot on a burning tarmac under a hot sun (42+ degrees Celsius)? Was it the poor woman selling her body to send money home to her village? Was it the farmer who killed his family and then committed suicide because his crops had failed and he was in debt and no one really cared? How proud were all of them when the five bangs occurred?

Most of the snap polls are all too often conducted over the telephone. India has 7 million phones, over 950 million people. The phones are in the cities, among the rich, and the middle class, a narrow segment of the country's populace. Their views alone do not make for India's views. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, truly a political party if there was one, now wants to construct a temple near the site to "commemorate" the event. If only the VHP got over its ridiculous temple-building obsession and worked on other more important areas they might actually end up doing some real good work in India.

Another proof, if any was needed, of a clear lack of strategic sight is the government's fuddling between China and Pakistan. On the one hand, the justification for the bomb blast is Pakistan's Ghauri, on the other, it is the "potential" Chinese threat. The Pakistan factor is unjustified. It is no secret, even in Pakistan, that the Indian armed forces are far superior to Pakistan's. How can Ghauri be the cause of the bomb when the Pak missile itself was fired in response to India's Prithvi, Agni, and Akash?

And if tomorrow, Islamabad also detonates a nuclear bomb or two, what will India do in response? Will this not lead to a kind of arms race that we just cannot afford? So far we had a conventional race, now we will have a nuclear arms race. Yet, will the ground situation change? Will Pakistan stop supporting subversives or helping Kashmiri militants? Will the Indian blasts ensure that Kashmiri Pandits can now stay safely in the valley (something very dear to the BJP)?

Some articles speak of destroying Pakistan by forcing it into an arms race that it cannot afford, just as the US did to the Soviet Union. To push Pakistan into bankruptcy might not be too difficult: India will have to induct nuclear bombs, missiles, raise defence expenditure, etc. But there is one major hitch: in building up a nuclear stockpile, India will also provoke China, a close ally of Islamabad. Now that can be very risky for India.

The Indian prime minister cited China as a factor for justifying the explosions. This aspect clearly shows a lack of strategic thinking and long-term perspective. Can New Delhi today really sustain an arms race against Beijing? China's economy is far larger than India's, it is growing faster, and its armed forces are about twice India's size. China's foreign reserves are $ 140 billion, India is $ 28 billion, China is reputed to have at least 400 nuclear warheads, besides a few ICBMs that can even hit southern India.

There is another strategic nightmare.

For India to hurt China, it needs long range missiles that can hit Beijing and Shanghai, thousands of miles away, beyond the vast Tibetan Plateau. But for China to bomb the entire Gangetic belt with its missiles and planes located in Tibet is a matter of a few hundred miles. This means to effectively threaten China's eastern coast and major cities, India needs a military capability able to strike thousands of miles away.

All this will require billions and billions of dollars, something that New Delhi, already groaning under a fiscal deficit of 6 per cent, simply cannot afford at this juncture. While Beijing makes tough economic choices (such as slashing the bureaucracy by 50 per cent to cut expenditure and perhaps use the money for more missiles!), New Delhi, including the present BJP government, refuses to take similar decisions because that would harm its electoral prospects.

In my last two columns, I had argued that before getting into an arms race with China, India must have the economic wherewithal to withstand the pressures that such an arms race will impose. No economically weak country can ever aspire to great power status even if possess nuclear arms (check out North Korea). Today, India's defence budget is not even among the world's top ten. Incidentally, Japan's defence allocation (at one per cent of its total budget) is among the world's top three!

Instead of trumpeting the Chinese threat, the BJP could have made more solid moves to prepare India's armed forces. It could have prepared strategic plans, increased defence allocation, improved the indigenous abilities, and kept the nuclear weapons under the carpet. To tackle Pakistan help to militants in Kashmir and elsewhere, India needs a stronger paramilitary force, better intelligence, and most important, a less dissatisfied population that doesn't fall prey to the ISI's machinations. Ditto for Chinese assistance to militants in the North-East. These, sadly, are more difficult to tackle.

They require more guts, because it means you have to tackle the disease within, such as feudalism and entrenched lobbies. It means going against the very people you turn to for votes. The need is for hard work and less gung-ho statements. It is the kind of effort that will truly make India a great power, but is not likely to win votes and do not entail circus shows. And so they remain on paper.

In the meantime, newspapers talk of how Indians and Vajpayee now walk tall, at least those Indians not dying of starvation in the villages of India, those who are not gunned down by the Ranvir Sena for demanding minimum wages in Bihari villages where electricity is unheard of.

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