|Nostalgia isn't what it used to be 2|
India and Pakistan sought to join the nuclear club in 1998 in the context of this culture of global politics. As one close to more than one anti-nuclear movement, I am aware that this description of the changing culture of global politics comes dangerously close to being a justification of the acquisition of nuclear weapons in South Asia. However, I am also aware that in the heart of every anti-nuclear activist in the region is the awareness of this folk history of India’s nuclearisation and the additional burden that it imposes on him or her.
From the beginning, a number of observers of South Asian politics had, directly or indirect ly, spoken on some of the basic limitations of the Western anti-nuclear movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Courageous and well-meaning, these movements did much to protect a sector of sanity in the public life of the West. But they often were perfectly innocent about the sensitiv ities and aspirations of a postcolonial society and — more important from the point of a country like India — they did not have much of an audience in the West’s policy circles. Aggres sive ly Eurocentric in ideas and practice, the leaders of the European peace movement took for granted that the Brahminic, aggressively modern, English-educated elite would forever continue to preside over South Asia’s turbulent politics for the sake of ensuring sanity and progress towards an European-style polity. The entire model of rationality that had emerged from the Enlightenment vision had never had an intrinsic connection with non-violence as a basic human value. Legitimate violence in the modern world was always seen in nineteenth century European social theory as a necessary part of statecraft and even radical social transformation. All efforts to reduce that legitimacy were seen as sanctimonious, comic-strip moralism.
Unfortunately, a huge majority of the policy elite and the security community in South Asia were craving to suffer from the diseases of the rich and the powerful. Anti-nuclearism in the region was slowly acquiring the status of a dedicated environmental or alternative development movement. That is, it was widely recognised as good for the dissenting intellectuals and small voluntary groups, serving as ornaments of Indian democracy, but bad for mainstream politics and national policies.
Foot will be read with much nostalgia and fondness by the older generation of India’s policy makers and foreign policy experts and security experts, but they will not be softened by his arguments. To the hard-eyed realists of New Delhi, this book will only be a minor provocation from an old friend of India who has now gone slightly gaga. (In Islamabad, he will in any case be dismissed as an unapologetic friend of India.) For there is no escape from the fact that it was not a fanatic Hindu nationalist party that suddenly decided to nuclearise India, though that is the way many would like to see it. Others had prepared the country for that eventuality for forty-five years, all the while talking of how nuclear science could be used for human welfare. Nothing is a better indicator of the present culture of Indian politics than the reaction of the best known, most vocal and aggressive opponent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, Mulayam Singh Yadav, leader of the Socialist Party of India. He was defence minister in the previous regime. On hearing the news of the tests by the BJP, all he could say was that he was about to test the bomb himself, but his govern ment fell prematurely. Actually, every party in Indian Parliament, including the Commun ists, congratulated the weapons scientists on their ‘great scientific achievement’ after the testing in 1974 and 1998. The awe of modern science and technology, always more formidable in the tropics, has been user-friendly for many forms of Satanism in recent decades.
I am not, however, pessimistic. The nature of Indian politics and the concerns of the Indian electorate set limits to her nuclear ambitions. In 1974, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi exploded the first nuclear device, hoping that it would not only buy her international recognition but also cheap domestic popularity. It did not. The usual strikes and protest movements had broken out in a number of states in India and in 1975 she had to impose national emergency and suspend civil rights to contain opposition to her regime. She never forgot the lesson. She did not go further with the nuclear programme because it had not brought her the expected political returns. In 1997, an all-India survey found that only about 36 per cent of Indians wanted a nuclear bomb. In 1998, soon after the nuclear devices were exploded, the figure reportedly went up to above 90 per cent. (‘Reportedly’ because no details of that survey, reported by a television channel, are available.) Within six weeks, a second survey, reported by the same channel, showed that the support had fallen to around 60 per cent. Four months after the event, another survey showed that only 44 per cent admitted to having been joyful immediately after the tests; 41 per cent claimed that they were worried. The euphoria was over. Within another few weeks Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the opposition, over took Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in popularity, according to a number of opinion polls. The same polls showed that public assessment of the BJP’s performance was predominantly negative.
This time too, the bomb has not delivered the political returns the party in power had hoped for. If I know my Indian politicians, their enthusiasm for nuclear weapons will now decline as quickly as it did the last time. This is probably not a wrong time to strengthen anti-nuclear public consciousness and movements in South Asia, even if on grounds other than the ones we are accustomed to. Foot should be happy about that, at least.
Ashis Nandy is a political psychologist and social theorist at the Centre for the
Study of Develop ing Societies, Delhi, and the author of Traditions,
Tyranny and Utopias (OUP), The Savage Freud and Other Essays in Possible and
Retrievable Selves (Princeton Univ. Press) and Creating a Nationality (OUP)