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Ashis Nandy

Dr Strangelove, I presume
Michael Foot
Victor Gollancz
London, 1999

I like many things about this book, but not the picture of Mr Foot, looking very old, haggard and grandfatherly, on the dust jacket. Why do the icons of one’s youth have to age? Why do they have to acquire that touch of being from another era when one could look at the world through their friendly moral visions?

This unpretentious and charming book seems to speak of times when the world looked uncomplicated and neatly divided between the godly and the ungodly. Written under the shadow of India and Pakistan going nuclear in 1998 to gatecrash into the big league of inter national politics, but before the border clashes at Kargil, Dr Strangelove, I Presume is an unwitting profile of an entire generation of anti-nuclear activism, its strengths and its weaknesses. It is obviously written quickly and should not be confused with a scholarly study. There are scraps of Parliamentary proceedings, gossip, hear say, personal opinions, history and political analysis — all served in a spicy sauce in the style of an Indian curry, which has now become, I am told, as English as fish and chips. But it is nonetheless a chronicle of the events and times that contextualise South Asia’s new passion, necrophilia.

Caricature by GOPI GAJWANI     

The book is difficult to summarise without being unfair to the author. To summarise is to condemn it as trite and formulaic. This is mainly because there are few surprises in the book. Foot also oscillates among actors who look like cardboard characters, mainly due to frequent type cast ing. The self-righteous American-Anglo-French establishment, the dedicated, enlightened leaders of the anti-nuclear movements, the idealistic first-generation leaders of independent India — they are all here in full regalia. Earlier works like that of Dhirendra Sharma and the recent writings of Zian Mia and Itty Abraham, which argue that India’s flirtation with nuclear weaponry began in the early years of independ ence, cast no shadow on Foot’s narrative. The book is significant not for what it occasional ly reveals — I, for one, did not know that Winston Churchill had serious doubts about nuclear arms — but for its clues to the way some central figures in the movements for a just world in the early post-war period thought and looked at international politics.

Foot was at the centre of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and took a leading role in the struggle against the nuclear arms race. He also had a formidable record of anti-imperialism and was known for his fondness for India, especially its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. They were ideological first cousins and the tropicalised Fabian socialism and internationalism that framed the early years of Nehru’s foreign and domestic policies must have been very pleasing to the likes of Foot. As if for the benefit of Labour’s left, India during the first two decades of its independent existence produced what looked remarkably like a poor man’s version of an unending Labour Party rule in Britain. British socialism had reasons to be grateful to the former jewel in the crown. The gratitude showed. Even when Nehru’s daughter suspended civil rights in India during 1975-77, Foot and his wife Jenny Lee were two of the few to stand by her. Indira Gandhi’s hard-eyed realpolitik might have palled on most Indians by that time, but not on the lotus eaters of the British left. To Foot, the new nuclear arms race in South Asia is, therefore, a matter of personal anguish and this book can be read as a touching story of lost love and betrayal.

From the point of view of anti-nuclear activists in India, though, the book is also a testi mony to some of the basic limitations in the worldview that powered western anti-nuclear move ments between the 1950s and 1970s. These were movements of dissent and always operated at the margins of western democracies. They included powerful voices and certainly had an impact on electoral politics and governance in these countries, but this impact was never significant. In India, on the other hand, the ideology of the CND and anti-nuclearism was at the centre of the country’s international relations; the small, occasional noisy, pro-bomb lobby was in the peripheries. It was as if, for a while, Britain’s dissenting self was enshrined in the self-defin ition of its erstwhile colony, as if India herself, and not merely her first generation of post-colonial leadership, was keen to prove itself a worthy pupil of Harold Laski. The few Indians who lobbied vociferously for the bomb, as also a section of those who opposed it, saw this asymmetry — between India and the other nuclear powers on the official status of anti-nuclearism—as an odd constraint on India’s foreign policy. Some of the latter, including Foot’s hero Jawaharlal Nehru, expressed their chagrin secretly by helping to keep the bomb option open for India’s nuclear establishment.

Once, however, India floundered in the Indo-China war in 1962 and particularly after the Chinese nuclear test of 1964 and, later, when America’s nuclear-armed Seventh Fleet threatened India during the Bangladesh war in 1971, opportunities opened up for those proposing the nuclear isation of India for decades. Many at the centre of Indian politics began to feel that in India, too, the right to acquire nuclear weapons had to be a part of mainstream public policy and political culture. Opposition to the nuclear bomb, they believed, should be left to the dissent ers and party ideologues outside the policy-making process, as happens in the more powerful democracies. The fact that the option for nuclear weapons was never closed, even in Nehru’s time, helped. The first head of India’s nuclear programme was the urbane, anglicised Homi Bhabha, who had gulped down every grandiloquent claim of the nuclear establishment in the West. But he was also fully versed in the idiom of European social democracy of the 1930s and could speak stylishly of ‘Atoms for Peace’ and fusion for unlimited free energy. This had its hazards, however. As the climate of public opinion changed, the Commission’s consistent failure to meet any of the civilian goals it had set itself repeatedly embarrassed successive heads of India’s Atomic Energy Commission. They were also perhaps a little tired of kowtowing to the politicians to ensure the smooth flow of funds to the nuclear programme. To them, weaponisation seemed an easy way to what, to their mentors and the media, would look like spectacular perform ance.

When Indira Gandhi said, "My father was a saint; I am a politician," there was in that the estimate of a hidden censor, too. He should not have been a saint, his daughter meant to say, in a world populated by blackguards. To these Indians Foot, like Bertrand Russell and the CND, was part of the bad company that had led Okonkwo’s father astray

Even then, it was not possible to bury the traditions of the previous three decades and, above all, the Gandhian heritage of the freedom movement. After testing the bomb and passing it off lamely as a peaceful nuclear explosion in 1974, Indira Gandhi kept a low profile on the nuclear front. Nuclear weapons research went on, but beyond the public gaze and without any open attempt to foment jingoism or gain political mileage. But that moderate celibacy did not pay India any dividends over the next twenty-five years in international politics. Indira Gandhi had thought that the demonstration of India’s capacity to explode nuclear devices and the refusal to push the programme to its ‘logical’ conclusion would earn her the respect of the world and kudos from the nuclear powers. That restraint was taken as a matter of course by global nuclear powers, two of them actually toothless tigers, trying to pass themselves off as global powers on the basis of their nuclear dentures.

Gradually, the belief grew in India’s policy elite and among mainstream politicians that India’s voice would never be heard unless it armed itself with nuclear weapons. The most influential strategic analyst in India, K. Subrahmanyam, aware that in reaction to the Indian bomb Pakistan would have to go nuclear, began to argue ingeniously that both India and Pakistan should have nuclear weapons. Not merely to checkmate each other, but to avoid being blackmailed by hypocritical nuclear powers wanting to disarm the rest of the world but not themselves. Such arguments did not fall on deaf years. Nehru’s anti-nuclearism had already begun to look to the new generation of the Indian elite as part of a woolly-headed, namby-pamby foreign policy, fawning up to the superpowers and motivated more by ethics and ideology than by realpolitik. It was the same hyper-masculine protest that Okonkwo displays while fighting the ghost of an effete father in Chinua Achebe’s When Things Fall Apart. When Indira Gandhi said, "My father was a saint; I am a politician," there was in that the estimate of a hidden censor, too. He should not have been a saint, his daughter meant to say, in a world populated by blackguards. To these Indians Foot, like Bertrand Russell and the CND, was part of the bad company that had led Okonkwo’s father astray. Naturally, with the antinuclearism in Britain itself a victim of the passage of time and changing fashions, the likes of Foot began to look upon Indians as well-mean ing, ineffectual friends — politically correct, small-time amateurs, out of touch with the global system and unaware of the limits of their own politics.

p. 1 p. 2


Ashis Nandy is a political psychologist and social theorist at the Centre for the
Study of Develop ing Societies, Delhi, and the author of
Tyranny and Utopias (OUP), The Savage Freud and Other Essays in Possible and
Retrievable Selves (Princeton Univ. Press) and Creating a Nationality (OUP)