Editorial/State of health
Deterrence minus debate
Letters to the Editor

It is time for Indian politicians to recognize that their personal health should be as much a matter of public knowledge as their police records and their economic wealth. Dogged by rumours of ill health and reports of ministers jockeying to be next in line, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee yesterday held a press meeting to explain that his recent inability to attend Parliament was because of a throat infection. As the health of previous prime ministers has been treated as a state secret akin to India’s nuclear weapons programme, this openness was welcome. However, India is still far from being as transparent and mature about the wellbeing of its ruling class as it should be. Mr Vajpayee’s claims, for example, would cut little ice in the United States. The prime minister’s office has provided no medical reports or independent evidence.

The health of a political leader is a sensitive issue in almost any country. In dictatorships, it is a matter over which governments tie themselves into knots. The Soviet Union repeatedly lied, obfuscated and denied all when its leaders were ailing, sometimes even after they were clinically dead. The deaths of Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov were admitted only when the succession struggle was over. A similar byzantine affliction held China during the last days of Mao Zedong and even Deng Xiaoping. In democracies, where popular sovereignty lies with the electorate, legitimacy lies with the populace rather than party bosses. This has led democracies to become ever more frank about the health of their leaders.

The United States has developed the highest degree of transparency. This is not because of any law or regulation. Between the press and the demands of rivals, no candidate for any office can hide his medical condition any more. The present political campaigns serve as a testament. Mr Bill Bradley’s run for the Democratic presidential nomination was stopped in its tracks by his irregular heart. Mr Rudolph Giuliani has given Ms Hillary Clinton’s faltering senatorial campaign its biggest boost by publicly admitting he has been diagnosed for prostate cancer. The US and the world have suffered when it was more secretive. The stroke Woodrow Wilson tried to hide from his countrymen did greater damage to the future prospects of the League of Nations than it did to him.

A national leader makes decisions and sets policies that affect millions of other people. The principle underlying demands for a freedom of information act and transparent decision making in general is that the public should know what inputs went into a decision. Such inputs, after all, could range from bribery to madness. Being sick or on the verge of death would affect almost anyone’s judgment, most often for the worst. This is why the health of a national figure is not a matter of privilege. It is a popular right, a necessity for proper governance. Indians should understand why more than most. The Partition and its terrible legacy may well have been avoided if it had been known in 1947 that Mohammed Ali Jinnah was dying of tuberculosis.

Knowing that a prime minister or president is sick can have its negative side. In an era of jerry built coalition politics, an admission of ill health could bring down a government. One reason Mr Vajpayee has been moved to speak publicly about his health is the threat rumours posed to his ability to govern. If there is panic over an admission that a prime minister is ill, it is largely because of the present culture of secrecy. Many serious illnesses, including some cancers, are curable. The Indian public needs more exposure to such revelations if it is to learn to make rational responses. Keeping such knowledge secret does no one any good. The truth will out eventually. And truth delayed normally results in a far worse fallout than an immediate admission.    

It is at times like this, with 50 million people suffering cruel drought, that one cannot help but wonder whether Pokhran II addressed the real challenges that face India. This is not to oppose the bomb. But remembering Robert Oppenheimer’s “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” as the first atomic detonation blazed over the New Mexico desert, I have yet to be convinced that it underwrites security.

Not that I expect the current meeting in New York City to review the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which India denounces with bell, book and candle, to serve any constructive purpose. A review demands a willingness to evaluate conditions in a spirit of calm objectivity.

But far from seizing on the opportunity to take a fresh look at the nuclear regime in the light of developments since the NPT came into force in 1970, the United States is only interested in reinforcing the status quo with all the hysterical vehemence at Madeleine Albright’s command. The other strident female delegate, China’s Sha Zukang, is most concerned about the US proposal for an anti-missile shield (riding roughshod over the treaty against ballistic missiles) which might be extended to protect Taiwan from the pressures of reunification with the mainland. Russia, with its sharp internal divisions, appears to be the club’s most exemplary member, having hastily ratified a raft of nonproliferation instruments.

But divided and dissimulating as they are, all five nuclear states are united in their determination to kill article VI’s commitment to complete disarmament.

Their iniquity is about the only aspect of the controversy that is discussed in India. We have not had the benefit of a soul searching debate on the uses and abuses of the great deterrent such as gripped British society in the Fifties and Sixties. Bertrand Russell’s dismissal of Britain’s nuclear programme as “a frivolous exercise in national prestige,” James Cameron’s revulsion at the mushroom cloud above Bikini and all those Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marches wrung a response from reluctant authority. In that interaction lies the true measure of democracy which needs the spirit of dissent as much as it does instruments of good governance.

Here, Arundhati Roy’s passionate declamation is one of very few voices in the wilderness. It has not provoked others to demand, nor the government to provide, a convincing rationale that goes beyond the simplistic formulation of Atal Behari Vajpayee’s letter to Bill Clinton. Desperate not to be branded anti-national, no politician (or journalist) with a future to guard dares to ask pertinent questions. All that we hear ad nauseam is criticism of the big five for foisting a discriminatory arrangement on the rest of mankind. And, by implication, of all the other 182 NPT signatories for succumbing to superpower pressure.

Laced into that accusing rhetoric is the proud boast that while Pakistan stole or bought its technology, India developed it swadeshi. Undeniable as the claim may be, it goes ill with the contention that rationality and not national machismo prompted the government to take the plunge.

Actually, Pakistan’s position is more straightforward. It wants the bomb against India, as Nawaz Sharif told Clinton after Pokhran II. Whatever our feelings about such a brutally blunt one point agenda, we certainly cannot complain of obfuscation. The Pakistanis were long ago famously prepared to eat grass for a thousand years to develop nuclear weapons. They have an enemy and are not squeamish about identifying him.

No such lucidity attends India’s case. If India had to go nuclear because its neighbourhood is tough, is the main adversary Pakistan or China? In either case, is possession of the bomb in itself sufficient protection against sabotage and subversion, the “low cost war” of which we hear so much? Would India threaten Pakistan with nuclear devastation if Abdul Jalil’s arrest in Basirhat provides clinching evidence of Inter-services Intelligence collusion in train explosions and aircraft hijackings? Would the bomb be the most effective response if, heaven forbid, China again stirs up mischief in the Northeast?

Other questions follow once you accept the case for nuclear defence. What is the degree of weaponization? Have nuclear warheads actually been deployed? Can the delivery system reach all potential targets? To what extent is the military now a party to decisions? What is the cost of it all?

The threats to India’s integrity are real enough. But the bomb’s effectiveness against malign next door neighbours is less obvious. The draft nuclear doctrine says little. A white paper might be more reassuring. Meanwhile, the impression remains that India felt that a great power needs no excuse for the accoutrements of physical might.

We are also treated to the pious plea that while the big five’s bombs are weapons of destruction, India’s is a symbol of egalitarian justice against bullying by the monopolists. This is a persuasive argument for not signing the NPT, and I am sure that Jawaharlal Nehru in 1954 and Rajiv Gandhi when he unfolded a stirring action plan in 1988 meant it when they said that India would eschew nuclear ambition if others did so too. I am not so sure of their successors.

I foresee endless acrimony over inspection, monitoring, verification, dismantling, storing, costs and time schedules if by some magic the big five were suddenly to agree to implement article VI. But they won’t. And if they did, Israel would not. So New Delhi can safely blame the NPT for its decision.

The comprehensive test ban treaty, which India also refuses to sign and which the US senate resoundingly refused to ratify, is accused of being equally discriminatory. Its wording is not. But its ban on underground testing leaves the field open only to a handful of elite nations with the resources and expertise to carry out subcritical tests. Whether or not India falls in that category is not something that laymen can discuss. But discrimination is a fact of life, manifest in every single aspect of individual or collective activity. Railing against it serves no purpose since legislation cannot impose equality on an unequal species. To do that, it would have to suppress competence altogether as a factor in achievement. Since every nation cannot be the US, all would have to be content with being Rwanda.

Ironically, the CTBT and the still embryonic fissile materials cutoff treaty were both Indian ideas. India sponsored them at the United Nations. The US took them up when having achieved its nuclear ends, it could afford a token genuflexion in the direction of disarmament. By then, India felt it could not. The other and equally indomitable Arundhati (Ghose) harked back to the idealism of the early Nehru-Gandhi years when she told the disarmament conference in Geneva that a meaningful CTBT “should be securely anchored in a global disarmament context and be linked through treaty language to the elimination of all nuclear weapons in a time-bound framework.” So it should. But what if the big five continue to be disobliging?

The drought’s savagery tells us that even a nuclear power faces as formidable problems as Rwanda. Water management has barely been attempted in this country; yet, there was a blueprint once for grand canals linking rivers and for reservoirs to conserve monsoon floods which could then be channelled to areas of scarcity in years such as this. The beguiling triumph of Pokhran II should not distract public attention from government’s primary obligations. On the contrary, it is a reminder that improvement of the human condition is the first charge on science, technology and money.

Without accepting the New York City conference’s strictures against India, or endorsing Arundhati Roy’s belief that the bomb “is the final act of betrayal by a ruling class that has failed its people,” millions of Indians would like to know how it can help them in their grim struggle for survival. Security has a wider definition than military protection.    


La mindless vita

Sir — I protest the continuing degeneration of the back page of The Telegraph’s “Metro” supplement. The ramblings of a bunch of patronized food writers, fashion writers of floss, interior designers of kitsch and social columnists of monumental pretension surely cannot be an advertisement for good, objective and ethical journalism. The page is nothing but a plug for friends and their establishments. The edition of April 25 (“Socialite evenings”), with it’s description of the watering and feeding habits of a bunch of well heeled, well bred and well fed social butterflies — Shobha Dé being one — surely takes the cake. I am sure there are many like me repelled by this daily dose of crass indulgence.

Yours faithfully,
V. George, Calcutta

Institutional decline

Sir — It is a national disgrace that even after more than 50 years of independence, we have failed miserably to respect ourselves and our national institutions. We still nurture the mentality of being in awe of everything foreign. This attitude is often apparent in the functioning of institutions of higher learning like the Indian institutes of technology. These dream children of Jawaharlal Nehru are beginning to show a fascination for foreign degrees and students.

An easy channel for admission, bypassing the rigorous entrance examination, has been opened for these students. Another example of this is in recruitment of the faculty where too, foreign qualifications matter the most. Most of the faculty members who brought fame to the IITs held degrees from Indian universities. This attitude should be changed to create a healthy academic atmosphere where only merit and efficiency will matter.

Yours faithfully,
S. Bhattacherjee, Kharagpur

Sir — I am a first year student of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.

The condition of the hall management centre is becoming worse day by day. Mess overhead charges are raised every semester and the food is terrible. A few days ago a dead lizard was found in a dish.The cat eats from the same plate as the students. The utensils are not properly washed. The class IV staff are like sarkari jamais.They think they are infallible and invincible. Trade unionism has destroyed the system entirely. If this is the state of affairs in an elite institution like the IIT, I can’t imagine what the situation is like elsewhere.

Yours faithfully,
Rajiv Roy, Kharagpur

Sir — For the past year or so the IIT Kharagpur campus has become a virtual den of eve-teasers and hooligans. Almost every day there are instances of eve-teasing. Schoolgirls are molested on their way to or back from school. Women on campus, young and elderly, and hostel students are not spared. Apart from this there are also thefts.The security system has totally collapsed.When reported, the authorities respond late and take no proper action.

Yours faithfully,
Smita Ghose, Kharagpur

Sir — Given the university grants commission’s new activism against ragging in educational institutions, it must be lean season in IIT Kharagpur which has made a name for itself in perpetrating various forms of cruelty on freshmen. On countless instances first year students have been compelled to return for the fear of being bullied by seniors. And all this after an extremely difficult admission test to clear which students often spend thousands of rupees in tuition. Let’s hope the penalty announced serves as a just deterrent.

Yours faithfully,
N. Karmakar, Calcutta
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