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November 9, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

Small bang, big whimper

I don't know if you've noticed, but the government has stopped bragging about the Pokhran II explosion. When was the last time you heard Atal Bihari Vajpayee claiming that the nuclear tests proved that India was a power to reckon with? As the Bharatiya Janata Party goes into the assembly election campaign, its leaders are talking about many things but when Pokhran is mentioned at all, it gets a supporting role; the days when it was the government's star achievement are clearly over.

Only four months ago, the situation was very different. Madan Lal Khurana, living up to his role as the Minister-Who-Can't-Keep -His-Mouth-Shut, used the tests to challenge Pakistan to a kusti. L K Advani declared at a press conference that the realities of power in the subcontinent had now changed and warned Pakistan to be careful. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad talked about building a temple in Pokhran. And assorted Sangh Parivar enthusiasts declared that they wanted to take samples of the sacred sand of Pokhran from city to city. (Nice touch, that. What could be more symbolic of their ideology than radioactive dust?)

But nobody is saying anything like that now. The temple is on hold (unless the VHP first wants to find a mosque in that region which it can claim was once a temple). The Pokhran sand is undisturbed. Advani looks preoccupied but says nothing on nuclear issues. And when Khurana opens his mouth to launch a nuclear missile, the target is not Islamabad but Sahib Singh Verma.

What accounts for this change of stance? Partly, I suspect, it is because the people of India did not react as the BJP had expected. Many of us (myself included) believe that India probably does need a nuclear deterrent. But we recognise that this is a complicated issue and not one that is helped along by macho strutting from the likes of Khurana.

More significantly, we also know that Pokhran II is not a BJP achievement. India had nuclear capability way back in 1974 and recent advances in weapons technology have taken place under Congress and Janata Dal governments. The Bomb -- if we can call it that -- is a national achievement, not a party political victory. And we see no reason to give Vajpayee the sole credit of the hard work of so many of his predecessors. Consequently, even those who supported the tests -- in my opinion, the majority of Indians -- did not automatically turn into BJP voters.

But mostly, I suspect, the change of stance is due to the BJP's discovery that it miscalculated when it ordered Pokhran II. There is no evidence to suggest that the BJP thought deeply about the consequences of nuclear tests. Rather, it treated the decision to go nuclear as a statement rather than a strategic decision. When Vajpayee was in power for 13 days, he tried to order a test. And when he did return to office with a majority, one of the first things he did was to give the go ahead for Pokhran II.

Statements are all very well in principle. But the real world is too complicated for any government to let statements masquerade as foreign policy initiatives. At the time when it ordered the tests, the BJP reckoned that there would be American sanctions but that these would be half-hearted and ineffectual. It calculated that Pakistan would be stunned into inaction by our nuclear prowess. And it believed that the Vajpayee government would ride such a wave of public opinion that it could push any kind of agenda through.

Of these assumptions, only the one about American sanctions has been proved half-right. Far from cowering helplessly, the Pakistanis exploded their own bombs, ending at a stroke the perception that we were the big boys on the block and putting themselves on par with us. The wave of public opinion never really happened and instead of seeming like a strong prime minister, Vajpayee spent the months after the tests coping with squabbling allies, genuflecting before J Jayalalitha, watching helplessly while Yashwant Sinha withdrew almost his entire Budget and wondering why the economy wouldn't revive.

Even the assumption about the Americans was badly thought out. Yes, the Indian economy can survive sanctions. But it is hard to see how India can withstand American pressure on the nuclear issue indefinitely -- particularly when the country is in the grip of a recession and its neighbours in East Asia struggle with a recession. Worse still, from Vajpayee's point of view, the American pressure directly impacts on the foreign ministry. And as his own foreign minister, Vajpayee has faced an uphill task in communicating with Americans in the aftermath of the blasts.

Though the government is keeping very quiet about it, I suspect -- as do most people -- that it is now preparing to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Jaswant Singh has conducted several rounds of talks with Strobe Talbott on this issue and though neither side will reveal what transpired at these meetings, it is generally believed that the CTBT was the main item on the agenda.

I don't wish to suggest that it is necessarily a bad idea for India to sign the CTBT. But let's not forget who the principal opponents of the CTBT have been over the last three years. It is the BJP that has constantly told us how we must never part with our right to test nuclear bombs at will, and how a strong India is one that is sure of the strength of its nuclear arsenal. At a time when all other party manifestos kept the nuclear issue open, it was the BJP that urged us to be more specific.

For such a party to now turn around and say that the CTBT is not such a bad thing after all, is nothing short of bizarre. Moreover, the BJP is not even willing to tell us why it changed its mind. As far as we know, it entered government striking macho postures, exploded five bombs and then made innumerable statements about national pride. What happened to make the CTBT suddenly seem like an irresistible option? What about all those years of rhetoric? What about all those brave claims that it would never buckle under American pressure?

When the government does go public with its intention to sign the CTBT, my guess is that it will take the simplistic position that we don't need to undertake any more tests after Pokhran II.

There are several problems with this position. One: many people expected that the government would declare its willingness to sign the CTBT right after Pokhran II. But at that stage, it announced that there was no question of signing the CTBT. If no more tests were needed after that lot, then why did it refuse to sign the CTBT then?

Two: how do we know that no new tests are required? We've just done our first tests in 24 years. Can we be sure that our nuclear technology is at such an advanced level that we will never need to test ever again in the future? Should we sign away our right to do so?

Three: you can't see the CTBT in isolation. It is a creation of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty regime. For years, India has denounced the NPT as discriminatory and unfair. As far as I know, the BJP still denounces the NPT. So, can you sign the CTBT and reject the NPT? I'm not sure that's logically consistent. Certainly, the Government of India has always said that you can't separate the two.

In retrospect, it seems clear that we had three options on the nuclear issue. We could have accepted that our historical position was misconceived and signed the CTBT. We could have stuck to that position and refused to sign the CTBT as we have for some years now. Or, we could have undertaken our tests and then announced, immediately afterwards, that we were a nuclear power but were, in the spirit of responsibility, willing to sign the CTBT now.

History will record that the BJP rejected all three options. Instead it conceived of a fourth option so bizarre that nobody had dared to think of it. It exploded the bombs and then, far from behaving responsibly strutted around like a macho bully threatening our neighbours, linking national self-respect to mushroom clouds and refusing to sign the CTBT. Six months later, like all bullets, it abandoned this false bravado and let its natural cowardice show by secretly negotiating with the Americans to sign the CTBT.

It is hard to imagine a more monumental failure of governance. Certainly, it is difficult to conceive of a bigger con on the Indian people. The BJP went to the nation declaring that India now had the bomb and the rest of the world would just have to live with that. It expected Indians to support it for this machismo. It now turns out that what it really should have said was this: okay guys, we've exploded the bombs that we inherited from the last government.

The consequence is that the recession will deepen, Pakistan will also become a nuclear weapons state and we'll have to sign an agreement promising the Americans that not only will we never do it again, but that no Indian government will ever be allowed to test a nuclear weapon in perpetuity.

Would even those of us who welcomed Pokhran II when it happened have been pleased if we had been told the truth then? The BJP is disappointed that the people of India did not greet it with cheers and plaudits. In retrospect, it should be relieved that it was not pelted with the rotten eggs and tomatoes that it deserved.

Vir Sanghvi

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