Danger of an arms race in South Asia

By Achin Vanaik

India's bomb tests are morally shameful and politically foolish. Any act
which legitimises or promotes the production or deployment of these evil
weapons of mass destruction whether it is by the USA, China, India or
any other country deserves to be criticised at least on moral grounds
even if the overall judgments that such considerations must be
subordinated to 'national security concerns'.

Indeed, historically India had always cited the moral factor as a major
reason why it would not behave like nuclear elites elsewhere. That
nobody amongst the new army of applauders has even bothered to point to
the moral dilemma intrinsic to this act reveals most strikingly the
general mood of the Indian elite and strategic community. But since
nobody barring opponents are bothered by this, let us go to the
political dimension.

Amongst the numerous reasons why this act is so foolhardy there is space
here only to highlight one-it unleashes a political dynamic which is
outside India's control and whose ultimate end cannot yet be forecast.

More precisely, there will now be tremendous domestic pressure on
Pakistan to carry out its own test in retaliation. If this happens,
which is more than likely, the pressure on India to go a step further
and openly deploy nuclear weapons will become intense.

As it is, there is a powerful lobby both inside the BJP and government
as well as outside it which is pushing for India to do this. And, of
course, once this happens, Pakistan will follow suit and the regional
nuclear arms race will begin.

Expect the bomb lobby to react in two ways to such a development. On the
one hand there will be the appeal to national chauvinism about the need
to counter any Pakistani nuclear threat in the name of national
security, ignoring that Pakistan is the reactor.

On the other, there will be the claim that it doesn't really matter and
that, in fact, Pakistani acquisition and deployment of nuclear weapons
capability will enhance its self-confidence and therefore improve the
prospects of peace through active nuclear deterrence. What will be
missing will be any recognition of the simple truth obvious to all but
the 'nuclear expert' that the initiation of such nuclear rivalry both
reflects and qualitatively exacerbates the hatreds, tensions and
suspicions that have made this the only part of the world that has had
for over 50 years a continuous hot-cold war between two countries, and
with no end in sight.

It doesn't stop here. For all the talk of the Chinese nuclear threat
against India, this supposed threat has always been an abstract one
arising not from the actual behaviour of China but from two other
directions. First, there has been the deceptive slant given by vested
Indian interests to the interpretation of the China-Pakistan
relationship.

This has falsely been made out to be a near nuclear alliance when it is
actually nothing more than a relationship of cooperation in dual use
materials and technologies and arms carried out for mutual economic,
technological, commercial and political benefit.

One can imagine the uproar there would be in this country if China were
to supply Pakistan with its most advanced fighter aircraft or help it
set up two nuclear reactors. Yet this is exactly what Russia is doing
with India. The Pakistani hawk who screams that this indicates an
alliance between Russia and India which is strategically directed
against Pakistan is as fundamentally mistaken as the Indian hawk who
makes the opposite but equivalent claim about the China-Pakistan
relationship.

Second, there has been the deliberate and calculated invocation of China
as potential enemy at this juncture, even at the risk of worsening
China-India relations for no justified reasons. The purpose of
Fernandes' recent tirade against China now stands revealed. It was to
lay down the ideological rationale for the bomb tests to come. This
could not have been pegged to claims about Pakistani nuclear provocation
because of its essentially reactive diplomacy.

It could only have been pegged on the need to counter a future threat
from a 'potential' enemy, China, or on the need for India, also, to be
seen as a 'great' power, win world respect', etc. This last factor is
the real reason for the bomb tests. This action is not the expression of
a mature, calm, confident and relaxed nationalism, but of the very
opposite!

For a long time now what we have been witnessing in India is an
insecure, tension filled mood of frustrated and uncertain nationalism
amongst the Indian elite and middle classes. It is precisely because
there exists such a milieu and because this promotes the search for a
more aggressive 'resolution' of existing problems that the BJP-RSS
combine has been able to make the political inroads that it has.

It is not in the least a coincidence that the party which has pursued
the most aggressive and viciously communal form of cultural nationalism
has also been the party with the most aggressive nuclear position. It
has been the only party whose official position was that it would
"exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons" as distinct from merely
keeping the option open.

Fifty years after independence there is a widespread sense within the
Indian elite, that the country has not 'made it' internationally. China
has its economic miracle, smaller far eastern countries are greater
success stories, India is not listened to seriously, we are a great
civilisation, we must shape the twenty-first century along with other
great powers, etc. These are the sentiments that dominate.

This is a context eminently suited to the near desperate search for some
perceived short-cut that can somehow change such a situation or be
thought to do so. There has been no change in the external environment
or in threat perceptions that explains what has now happened. It has
everything to do with changing self-perceptions.

The sheer lack of sobriety in much of the public response, the
near-hysterical character of the adulation is not only pathetic but
deeply disturbing because of the out-dated mind-set it reveals. In the
more complex and difficult world we live in, great power status of the
conventionally sought kind is neither as important as it was once (and
still) thought to be, nor as easy to attain, nor pivoted as
significantly on military might.

Certainly, nuclear weapons are not only irrelevant to the issue in a way
that economic prosperity and strength is not, but so self-defeating as
to be part of the problem, not the solution.

After what has happened there are still two vital paths to pursue. The
first is to call a halt to the line where it now is and to adamantly
oppose further movement by India towards open development and deployment
of nuclear weapons or indeed any further tests.

This is a path which both anti-nuclearists, appalled at what has
happened, and many of those who support the tests can together follow.
The other path must be travelled by those who have supported the tests
but are rightly hostile or worried by the way in which the BJP has
hijacked the nuclear agenda.

Even as they may feel or publicly declare that these tests are desirable
and will contribute to a strong India, it will be the most shameful
abnegation of their political and moral responsibility if they do not
also declare publicly that they are motivated by a vision of Indian
nationalism that is fundamentally opposed to the ugly anti-democratic,
communal, intrinsically belligerent Hindutva that is the guiding force
of the BJP-RSS project for constructing a Hindu rashtra.

The latter are systematically seeking to hijack the discourses on
national security, national interests, national greatness, etc., to
legitimise their versions of all these and to use the impact of these
tests as part of that larger project.

This cannot be effectively confronted by doing what the Congress or UF
have done-clamouring for a share of the credit. The feeble official
response of the CPI and CPI-M is equally disgraceful. This can only be
done by a consistent differentiation of one's own politics and an
equally consistent attack on the ideology of the BJP-RSS even on issues
where there seem to be an agreement on final policy.

Is it too much to hope that the 'strategic experts' and others who
approve of the tests but not of the BJP-RSS will do as much?