June 27, 2020
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Is The Buddha Still Smilling ?

From international pariah to wannabe global player,it's been a hard road form Pokhran II

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Is The Buddha Still Smilling ?

WITHIN a year of the 1974 nuclear tests, Indira Gandhi had to impose Emergency as events spun out of her hands. Within a year of Pokhran II on May 11, Atal Behari Vajpayee lost the confidence vote in Parliament. And thereby hangs a tale.

Nuclear tests have never helped anyone— a basic lesson that Indian politicians have failed to grasp. The BJP claimed that it established India’s self- respect by conducting the Pokhran tests; but these claims didn’t help them win state elections last year. Nor is it likely that they’ll be huge vote- getters in the coming mid- term polls.

A year is a long time in a country’s history. It was no small step, but a giant leap for India— and Pakistan— to move from being a covert nuclear power to being an overt nuclear power. That makes three in the region now— no one’s about to forget China.

A year down the line, as the ambiguous milestone of the first anniversary of the nuclear tests looms ahead, it is valid to ask what the fallout has been: diplomatically, militarily and economically.

In the immediate aftermath of the N- tests, India had become almost an international pariah, indulging in fire- fighting operations around the world. Says Sumit Ganguly of the University of Texas, Austin, US : "There was a failure to think through a coherent strategy prior to carrying out the nuclear tests." Congress MP Natwar Singh is less polite: "The diplomatic and political mismanagement between May 11 and May 28— when Pakistan exploded its nuclear bombs— was horrendous."

Naturally Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary to the prime minister and national security advisor, differs: "I would say there is a sense of self- confidence in the nation today. The holding of the N- tests, the management of  the economy in the last one year, the resumed testing of Agni II, the dialogue with various countries— these are pointers towards a resurgent India. We have a standing in the world which we didn’t have last year." Concursa senior government official: "India has been underselling itself. When you project your case to the world, the inter-national community is receptive. If your mindset is that of a small developing country, you will be treated as such."

Not so, say the band of sceptics for whom the explosions generate much heat and little light. Says India expert Dennis Kux: "If you are in India, perhaps it looks good— India has come of age and has become a real power. Outside South Asia, it looks as if India has placed the bomb, a supposed ticket to great power status, above tackling its many glaring problems."

The view from India: Criticism inside the country is sharper and focuses on different issues. Defence expert Brahma Chellaney applauds the fact that India has broken out of the "strategic straitjacket we had bound our-selves in for 25 years. For years we were warned that the heaveans are going to fall on you if you test." Instead, he says, there wasn’t much of a reaction and the sanctions were easy to bear. India demonstrated its scientific capability by detonating different kinds of sophisticated warheads. Diplomatically, though, India’s form was off. The tests cast a shadow on the entire nuclear non- proliferation regime. "We could have leveraged the tests to our advantage. Instead we were defensive, explained that we weren’t a threat, and entered into talks with the US without a clear strategic framework."

On May 11, after the tests, Mishra announced that India was willing to accept parts of the CTBT and negotiate the Fissile Material Cut- off Treaty ( FMCT ). "India followed national security interests. But it engaged in one act of defiance to be followed by three acts of compliance," comments Chellaney.

Soon after, the government delinked CTBT and FMCT from complete and time   bound nuclear disarmament, a position that had been held since 1947. Natwar Singh, Chellaney and Savita Pande from the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses ( IDSA ) question this. Says Singh: "The Congress position is that non- prolifera- tion should be linked to nuclear disarmament; therefore CTBT should have had that linkage. Otherwise it’s meaningless." Chellaney accuses the government of abandoning NAM : it made an about face on FMCT by delinking it from nuclear disarmament in the May 11 statement. The PM abandoned this position in the speech he gave at the UN General Assembly last September, when he termed this linkage with disarmament as "history".

Mishra ducks this criticism by saying that though India has abandoned this linkage it is raising the issue of nuclear disarmament in various international   fora. "Since these two treaties are linked to questions of our security, having done the tests, the security question is taken care of." His feeling is that there are people opposed to the CTBT "theologically" and in order to buttress their position they doubt the government’s claim that it wasn’t necessary to do more tests. "We were told by our experts that we don’t need any more tests, which is why we have talked about CTBT ."

The domestic political flux has ensured that signing the CTBT by the September deadline is virtually impossible. Mishra feels that if elections are held in June, the next government can take a decision on this. Another option: the Vajpayee government discussing the issue with opposition parties if elections are not held till September. But this may be challenged by other parties.

Raw deals: But what about the negotiations between external affairs minister Jaswant Singh and US deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott? Details are a closely guarded secret, though in the eighth round in January, Jaswant had assured the Americans that India would sign the CTBT by May or June in return for specific sanctions being lifted. A furore rose when this was leaked and Jaswant had to roll   back his words and deny the deal.

Jaswant is lucky that the government fell before his credibility became a serious issue. Laughs a senior government functionary: "If the government had survived, they would have been faced with a very awkward deadline next month of signing the CTBT ." Mishra vehemently denies the deal. But, says Natwar Singh: "When Talbott met Sonia Gandhi, he gave the impression  that Jaswant had told them that India could sign the CTBT by May."

Acknowledges former foreign secretary  M. K. Rasgotra: "Yes, we had a deal. But sign for what? For the release of some World Bank money. It’s treating your country as a satellite power. It was a very bad faux pas. I don’t think we should sign the CTBT ." Even Natwar Singh is opposed to signing the CTBT unless India is recognised as a nuclear weapon state. What’s clear is that the consensus on CTBT is a mirage. Mishra says that the government had discussed the issue with the opposition parties; the opposition says there was no communication. Says former prime minister I. K. Gujral: "There was no consensus, no discussions between me and the government.Even as chairman of the standing committee on external affairs, the government did not take me into confidence."

Down to business: Economically, however, the report card reflects that India did better at facing the sanctions. Despite the recession, industry is upbeat. Says Subodh K. Bhargava, chairman Eicher Goodearth: "Even the imposers were not serious. What was done was mandatory, but did no harm to the Indian economy." Says CII director- general Tarun Das: "Just after the imposition, the investment climate and sentiments were dampened a bit, but India came through it extremely well."

Experts say that this attitude stems from the fact that the sanctions were mild. Says T. K. Bhaumik, CII ’s expert on American affairs: "The net monetary impact was minimal— about $500 million in aid flows and $250 million long- term credit from the US Exim Bank." The only major blow was the cancellation of the Aid India meeting; it usually brings in $6- 7 billion annually in soft, short- term loans.

Even in the US, there were mixed feelings about the sanctity of the sanctions. Richard N. Haass is the director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, a powerful think- tank based in Washington DC, and co- chairman of the independent task force on US policy towards India and Pakistan after the nuclear tests. The sanctions, he says, were simply a tool of American foreign policy— although not a terribly effective one— and had to be brought into force under the provisions of the Glenn Amendment. However, the net outcome was that it penalised US business and did not con- tribute in bringing stability in South Asia. It was in the best inter- est of both that sanctions were lifted. 

Bombs make good neighbours?

The N- tests forced India and Pakistan to sit down at the negotiating table. It is doubtful that the Lahore Declaration would have taken place without the tests and the global pressure to get India and Pakistan to talk.

There’s no denying that going nuclear has added a certain elan to Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Saturday afternoons. He spends an hour taking calls from across the nation to listen to public grievances. Invariably, the caller first congratulates Sharif on last May’s nuclear tests at Chagai Hills. After Pakistan’s tests, Sharif asked callers to suggest names for May 28, the day that made them proud, with a Rs 1 lakh jackpot for the winner. ‘Freedom Day’ was a popular suggestion.

"Freedom from what? Freedom from poverty, illiteracy, overpopulation?" a Western diplomat asked sourly, after his country along with others had refused to set dates for the Aid Pakistan Consortium meeting because of Islamabad’s reluctance to sign the CTBT .

In security terms, some of the issues that face Pakistan today relate to the impact that the nuclear test has had on the future acquisition of conventional weapons, costs of future tests, putting in place a  viable control and command system, the minimum credible deterrence and passing laws to prohibit the export of nuclear technology.

The strain on the economy showed up far more sharply. "Shattered investor confidence, declining economic growth, heaviest ever contraction in foreign trade and an unsustainable burden of internal and external debt... The lack of job opportunities and rising spectre of poverty is leading to unprecedented social tensions manifesting themselves in the rising level of suicides," was a more realistic take by The News. Ultimately, Pakistan has its eyes on India. Talks and negotiations on the CTBT in Pakistan have been postponed as that nation watches India prepare to vote in its 13th Lok Sabha.

The longest day: As India and Pakistan struggle to understand the repercussions of those blasts in May, the Western establishment has no doubt: India made a mistake by testing and it hasn’t enhanced its security. Says Robert Hathaway, director, Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington: "The tests have degraded India’s security. India’s tests drove Pakistan to an overt nuclear situation. By pointing to a China threat as justification, India has clearly raised threat perceptions in China."

The government has still to deliver the strategic defence review that it had promised before the elections last year. Mishra says it’s being worked out. Perhaps the best summary of the situation comes from Savita Pande: "In one year, India’s nuclearisation has reflected its technical achievement, industrial and scientific capability; and a matching political inability to handle a nuclear India."

With Arindam Mukherjee, Ludwina A. Joseph in Washington DC and Mariana Baabar in Islamabad

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