Saturday, May 10, 2008

Ten years after explosion of national pride

A decade after May 11, 1998
Ten years ago this Sunday, India stealthily conducted three nuclear tests at Pokhran, sending shockwaves around the world. The 'Powerful Five' and Janus-faced moralists like Canada and Australia were aghast and almost disbelieving -- not so much because India had decided to demonstrate its nuclear capability, which it had kept under wraps for years, but because of its audacious disregard for consequences, especially economic sanctions. The US had an additional reason to feel hugely upset: For all its 'eyes' in the sky and 'ears' on the ground, it had been taken by utter and total surprise.
Unlike PV Narasimha Rao, who almost dared the world but stopped short of conducting the crucial tests that would enable India to cross the Rubicon and emerge as a nuclear power, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee was both crafty and determined. We will never really know whether an accidental discovery by the Americans of preparations for conducting tests at Pokhran resulted in sufficient pressure being applied on Rao for him to call them off. But we do know that Mr Vajpayee instructed, and ensured, that no such discovery occurred between his giving the green signal for Operation Shakti and Buddha 'smiling' on May 11, 1998.
That demonstration of India's shakti was no doubt essentially the achievement of our scientists and technologists who toiled ceaselessly to put together, with indigenous know-how, nuclear devices of calibrated yields, including a hydrogen bomb, despite the barriers that had been raised after Mrs Indira Gandhi taunted the world with her 'peaceful' explosion of May 18, 1974, erasing forever the image of India as a nation with a begging bowl, perpetuated in no small measure by a mocking America since the days of PL 480 aid. Unlike Pakistan, we neither received nuclear technology nor burgled it from unsuspecting countries.
Hence, when the tests were conducted in May 1998, they were seen as an assertion of self-esteem and self-pride, a declaration of national resolve -- thrice over on May 11 and twice over on May 13. The front page of this newspaper captured the mood of the nation by running the story on the tests under a banner headline, 'India explodes H-Bomb', accompanied by a triumphant signed editorial, 'Explosion of self-esteem', by its editor, Mr Chandan Mitra.
Yet, it would be nothing short of cussedness to deny Mr Vajpayee the credit for daring to tread where his predecessors had feared to venture. Since Mrs Gandhi's decision to conduct the first test in 1974, all other Prime Ministers, including Rajiv Gandhi, had chosen to indulge in peacenik mumbo-jumbo about universal disarmament, hoping to join the ranks of disingenuous non-proliferationists like former US President Jimmy Carter. Mr Vajpayee chose to be different and, as subsequent events were to prove, initiated a tectonic shift in India's foreign policy and strategic posture.
Yes, it marked a break with the past, which had become so pitifully meaningless ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Empire. But it also marked the beginning of India's foray into a brave new world heralded by the advent of the 21st century two years later. In his own way, Mr Vajpayee foresaw the potential of India entering the 21st century as a nuclear power and acted accordingly. It helped that the BJP had never been squeamish when it came to the nuclear question.
The fallout of Pokhran II was felt on two fronts. Pakistan, enraged that it had been upstaged, conducted five nuclear tests on May 28 and a sixth test on May 30. That was Islamabad's assurance to Pakistanis that it could still steal a march over New Delhi. Almost simultaneously, donor countries turned off their taps and came down heavily with economic sanctions, apart from imposing harsh restrictions on technology transfer or whatever little of it was happening.
India rode through the storm and survived the vicious response. We continue to be a stable and responsible state, unlike Pakistan whose nuclear arsenal has become a cause for worry across the world as an unstable state implodes on itself, notwithstanding an elected Government taking over from the illegitimate regime of Gen Pervez Musharraf.
Our strategic engagement with the US to fashion a new over-arching security paradigm and the attempt to redefine our relationship with other countries, including Russia and China, both aggressively pursued by Mr Vajpayee, stands in sharp contrast to the co-option of Pakistan by the post-9/11 US-led Western alliance, not as an equal but as a client state. When the US refers to Pakistan as a "staunch ally" what it means is beggars can't be choosers.
But a decade after that stunningly awesome display of India's determination to secure its rightful place in the comity of nations, of announcing its arrival in a world where the voice of the powerful is heard over the clamour of those whose survival depends on the munificence of the 'Powerful Five', and 34 years after Mrs Gandhi posed for photographers at Pokhran, we appear to be losing the gains that accrued from Mr Vajpayee's decision to go nuclear.
Just how much we have compromised on our self-esteem, our self-pride, can be gauged from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's desperation to strike a flawed deal with the US for civil nuclear cooperation. It is reflected in the hesitation that has replaced confidence while dealing with foreign policy, most noticeably in our relations with China. It is exemplified by our reluctance to take Pokhran II to its logical conclusion by putting in place a credible minimum deterrent that is alive to changing geo-political realities and not a stagnant doctrine with an irrelevant posture.
The decline is as perceptible on the domestic front where non-governance has become the mantra of survival and as Ministers indulge their own perverse whims and fancies, a weak Prime Minister watches from the margins. It's nice to think of India as a nuclear power but that idea of India does not square up to facts that should embarrass us. Nor does it make sense to sell national honour for a nuclear agreement with America when basic issues remain untouched by either policy or programme.
It would be foolish to believe that the image of a resurgent India, that captivated the world after May 11, 1998, still obtains. The Prime Minister and his cronies in the media believe that India's deliverance depends on the 123 Agreement, that nuclear power -- as opposed to nuclear power - will take us to new heights of prosperity and a new level of strategic clout. What they forget is that in this wondrous land of ours, 67 million children below the age of five live without basic healthcare, more than a million children die every year before they complete a month of their wretched lives, and millions of adults and children still go to bed hungry even as the middle class struggles to cope with runaway prices and a tottering economy.
Mr Vajpayee had a vision for India to emerge as a powerful nation, prosperous at home, equal to others abroad. The most memorable highlight of his years as Prime Minister will no doubt remain the decision to empower India by going nuclear on May 11, 1998. But we would be unfair to his legacy if we failed to recall the beginning he had made in empowering Indians by improving their lot. That legacy has been squandered by Mr Manmohan Singh; it's not surprising that his Government should choose to shun the 10th anniversary of Pokhran II.

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