Fail and succeed
Purifying channel
The Strangelove fallacy
Letters to the Editor

The only question about the Centre’s reaction to the Jammu and Kashmir assembly’s autonomy resolution was what form the rejection would take. In the end, the door was slammed shut harder and quicker than expected. The Union home minister, Mr L.K. Advani, had initially talked of putting the resolution before Parliament. The resolution would be predictably buried in nays, but would die in a symbolically democratic environment. However, the outcry over Mr Abdullah’s gambit was such that it became impossible for the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition to wait until Parliament met. Every party, the BJP included, denounced Mr Abdullah in ever shriller tones. The ideologues of the sangh parivar also joined the chorus. Finally, and embarrassingly for New Delhi, the autonomy resolution struck a chord among a number of regional politicians. From Assam to Punjab, state leaders asked for a similar degree of autonomy for their own states. Preferring to not let the issue fester, the cabinet met and rejected the Jammu and Kashmir assembly’s move out of hand. If the cabinet response was mild, it reflected the fact the National Conference is a National Democratic Alliance member.

Though the noise about autonomy will die down, the Centre will have to mull over the message Mr Abdullah sent by passing the resolution in the first place. The Kashmir chief minister knew a return to the pre-1953 status was impossible. Though the Atal Behari Vajpayee government denies it, National Conference leaders have said Mr Abdullah was motivated by a fear New Delhi was preparing an autonomy package — but planning to gift it to moderates of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, with which it is holding talks. Mr Abdullah has been demanding such a package to legitimize his own regime and rejuvenate his fading popularity. The National Conference’s autonomy resolution was designed to make the Vajpayee regime run for cover. Mr Abdullah calculated well. By pushing for the absurdity of the pre-1953 position, the Centre was given the leeway to quash the resolution without forswearing a more limited form of autonomy for Kashmir. Mr Abdullah is probably pleased with the aftermath. The Centre has been warned that he must be a player in any Kashmir solution. In particular, he must be given some if not all the political credit for any autonomy deal. At the heart of all this is the near impossibility of striking a constitutional deal with the Hurriyat Conference because, for all its popular support, it refuses to contest elections. On the other hand, Mr Abdullah’s two thirds majority in the Kashmir assembly gives him more leverage than his actual grassroots support would warrant. The Vajpayee government is in a cul de sac. It has received a suitable reminder that Kashmir will continue to trouble India in part because the Kashmiri leadership remains so riddled with ambiguity.    

Curious are the ways of the chauvinistic mind. The deputy chief minister of West Bengal, Mr Buddhadev Bhattacharya, went out of his way to establish his distance with the beliefs of Shyamaprasad Mukherjee by stating that he would not participate in his birth centenary celebrations. In the same context, he criticized the Bharatiya Janata Party and other prominent members of the sangh parivar for causing divisions along religious lines in the country. So far so good. Having placed himself at a healthy distance from both Mukherjee and the BJP, however, the deputy chief minister tied himself into a knot, of which he is probably still unconscious. The BJP member of the legislative assembly in West Bengal, Mr Badal Bhattacharya, had asked him whether he would not like to fight cultural decadence unitedly. No query could better expose the common plank between the sangh parivar and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Both parties are over-sensitive about alien influences in culture, and both ignorant of how culture works on the one hand, and alienness on the other. In reply, Mr Buddhadev Bhattacharya said that the Left Front would not go to the BJP for help, since that party’s philosophy was akin to that of Adolf Hitler’s. Instead, the state government was expecting to telecast its own programmes on a four hour slot hired from a private television channel in order to counter the “onslaught” of foreign TV channels on national culture. No doubt the deputy chief minister does not find this attitude remotely similar to the BJP’s philosophy.

The Left Front, particularly the CPI(M), has so far been over-officious in deciding or commenting on what the residents of the state can see or hear on stage. It has seemed, on occasion, more concerned about the “influence” of the culture of the Bombay film world, than about “foreign influence”. The assumption is, of course, that Bengali culture is some kind of protected species, so fragile that it will wither the moment it is “infected” by outside inputs. Also that people are waiting to be told how best to entertain themselves. It would be too much to expect the culturally concerned in the Left Front to see that provincialism is the first sign of a dying culture. Openness to new influences and a creative response to them are the only ways by which a culture remains dynamic and enriches itself and other cultures. This blindness is brought on by insecurity. A sense of being left behind, not just economically, but politically and therefore in history, has pathetically demolished the Bengalis’ self-confidence. A wavering sense of worth, a faltering grip over their own language, make Bengalis fiercely — and absurdly — protective of their “culture”. Perhaps Mr Buddhadev Bhattacharya will be able to ensure that the government produced Bengali programmes magically undo the terrible harm wrought by foreign channels.    

Recent work on the history of Indian nuclear weapons development has shown a growing interest in the political activities and influence of the scientists and engineers of the atomic energy commission. Books such as George Perkovich’s India’s Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation and Itty Abraham’s The Making of the Indian Nuclear Bomb: Science, Secrecy, and the Postcolonial State, as well as articles by Scott Sagan and Peter Lavoy, eschew long analyses of the Indian strategic situation in favour of detailed, copiously researched history of bureaucratic, institutional, and political wrangling “behind the scenes”. The trend away from armchair strategizing and toward detailed history is certainly a welcome one, and there is much interesting new data in each of these works.

Unfortunately, however, when these works attempt to build from historical detail to overall theory, they tend to fall into what I would call the “Dr Strangelove” fallacy. This fallacy is composed of at least three propositions: the scientists and engineers of the AEC — otherwise known as the “atomic establishment”— have from the start been either indifferent to or positively excited about the prospect of making nuclear weapons. A nuclear bomb programme has appealed to the “atomic establishment” as a perfect way of pursuing their corporate self-interest, that is, acquiring greater budgetary outlays. The technical wizardry of the “atomic establishment” has permitted them to bamboozle and hypnotize their political “masters” into letting them bring India across the “nuclear threshold”. In this short article, I will argue that each of the preceding points is doubtful both in the Indian case and as a more general proposition.

The proponents of the “Dr Strangelove” fallacy contend that the “atomic establishment” has consistently pressed for an Indian nuclear bomb. On the very first page of his book, Perkovich calls Rajagopala Chidambaram and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam the “leaders of the strategic weapons establishment, an enclave of scientists and engineers in India’s defence research and atomic energy institutions who for five decades had been pushing India to join the exclusive club of nuclear weapon states. Now, on May 11, 1998, they were on the verge of crossing the threshold unambiguously”.

The first problem with the idea of a long drive for the bomb by the “atomic establishment” is that a univocal “atomic establishment” is hard to find in India or in any other nation. For one thing, most of the resources, time and efforts of the AEC are devoted to the civilian nuclear power programme. Many of the AEC scientists who are focussed on the civilian side naturally tend to view steps toward the bomb with suspicion. On top of this, there is the inevitable cultural clash between the AEC and the military, who are not the “natural” allies on the bomb issue that the “Dr Strangelove” perspective claims them to be. Civilian scientists, who participate in an international community marked by the free flow of information, have trouble coming to agreement with military officers, whose world is by contrast one of clearly defined borders. This is not to deny that the AEC has high profile advocates of nuclear weapons, for it certainly does. But they do not represent any “establishment” interest. For every Raja Ramanna there has been a Vikram Sarabhai.

Even some of the members of the so-called “bomb lobby” that Perkovich and the others point to are in fact not so easy to pin down. Homi Sethna, for instance, was certainly instrumental in promoting India’s “peaceful nuclear explosion” of 1974. But his pressure for the PNE should not be equated with pressure for “the bomb”. To this day, Sethna has consistently maintained that he was solely interested in the scientific, engineering and industrial applications of nuclear explosions.

Moreover, he told me in an interview that when once in private Indira Gandhi referred to the planned PNE as a “bomb”, he corrected her, saying rationality and indeed her religion would not permit her to acquire such a terrible weapon of mass destruction. Moreover, when Indira Gandhi asked Sethna to judge the likelihood of a Pakistani bomb — a golden opportunity for him to create momentum for an Indian bomb programme — Sethna argued that there was nothing to worry about for at least 10 years and probably more.

The second fallacy is that the “atomic establishment” wanted the bomb because its interest is to get a bigger budget. But in fact the AEC, like most bureaucratic organizations, is interested in greater autonomy as well as in greater budgets. It is not at all clear that producing nuclear weapons is the ticket to greater autonomy. To use a comparative historical example, the first United States AEC chairman, David Lilienthal, was disillusioned by observing that his organization had become “nothing more than a major contractor to the department of defence”. It stands to reason that the Indian AEC fears the same fate.

The third fallacy is that the “nuclear establishment” easily had its way with the politicians. The lynchpin of the “Dr Strangelove” argument is that the “atomic establishment” has had heavy influence if not control over all aspects of Indian nuclear policy. As Abraham writes: “Bhabha’s political monopolization of atomic energy was decisive in strengthening the already existing conjuncture of science and state in India.”

It is true that due to the institutional framework put in place by Jawaharlal Nehru and Homi Bhabha, the AEC has historically directly reported to the prime minister. This has of course allowed for greater access than normal bureaucratic actors have. The AEC has also enjoyed great prestige in the Indian public arena. But are access and prestige the same as political influence, especially on the fundamental question of whether or not to “go nuclear”?

The first point to make in this connection is that in both 1974 and 1998, the prime ministers in power were strong leaders with minds of their own. If the tests had occurred under the rule of H.D. Deve Gowda or even P.V. Narasimha Rao, the “scientists’ pressure” hypothesis might hold some water. But in fact they were conducted under Indira Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee. Can anyone truly think that such individuals let themselves be bullied or tricked into an act that was so clearly going to revolutionize India’s diplomatic and security situation? Besides, in the case of Indira Gandhi, the real decision was taken not during her domestic troubles of 1974 but rather at the height of her power, in 1972. And as for Vajpayee, he had made his support for nuclear weapons clear over years if not decades.

The main case for the scientists’ influence rests, dubiously, on the non-test of 1995 that was supposedly ordered by Rao. While something did clearly happen in the Rajasthan desert in 1995, it is not at all clear that the correct story is one of Rao first relenting to the scientists’ pressure to test, then doing an about-face when the Americans discovered the preparations. At least two alternative stories seem equally plausible. One is that Rao saw the test as a way to salvage his declining political fortunes in the run-up to an election contest with a strong (and nuclear weapons-promoting) Bharatiya Janata Party. Another, much more plausible hypothesis is that Rao considered testing in the wake of the comprehensive test ban treaty debacle, but that a broad array of advisors prevailed on him to abandon the idea for economic and diplomatic reasons.

Certainly, any detailed history of the Indian nuclear bomb should cover the actions of the AEC scientists and engineers. But there is a difference between description and explanation. If one wants to explain why India chose to “go nuclear”, a focus on the political machinations of the AEC helps very little.

The “bureaucratic politics” school of thought in international relations emerged in the atmosphere of cynicism of the late Sixties US. It has made some significant contributions to our understanding of the world. But it is not appropriate as a model to explain every decision in foreign and security policies. The decision of whether or not to “go nuclear” is perhaps the most fundamental decision that any government can take. For better or for worse, the BJP government made this decision in 1998 based on its vision of India and the world. “Dr Strangelove” is a great movie, but it is a work of fiction. If bureaucratic politics was essentially irrelevant to the Indian decision to “go nuclear”, how should this affect American nonproliferation policy? Unfortunately, the lessons are not clear. One could argue that since the nuclear weapons decision was essentially a top-down one, the US goal of convincing the Indian leadership to move toward “un-proliferation” could conceivably succeed. The point is worth considering, but it is necessary to note that bureaucracies are much better at resisting change than at fostering it.

Therefore, even though the “atomic establishment” was not the key to India’s choice to “go nuclear”, it could prove a daunting adversary for any future Indian prime minister who attempted to “undo” what was wrought at Pokhran. India is now living in a post-test era, with a different regional power configuration than before, a different institutional framework for national security and nuclear matters, and indeed even different politics. For all these reasons as well as the bureaucratic politics factor, the goal of Indian “un-proliferation” seems at best a distant dream.    


Blair the horn

Sir — The English media, pilloried after Diana’s death, has developed a guilty conscience. And become a big yawn in the process. Despite the general curiosity about Prince William and the Blair baby, the tabloids have confined themselves to specially arranged photo-ops to whet some of that thirst. No telephoto lens this time, none of those undignified sneaks that supposedly drove Diana to her death. Maybe the media should learn from the English private school children who promptly photographed Leo Blair on his first public engagement (“Kid scoop on Blair baby”, July 4). They had no inhibitions publishing the photograph on their school report page in a regional daily, which incidentally created a huge sensation. Popular interest, especially about public figures, is a fact of life. Priggishness will only deprive the paparazzi of their livelihood, besides fuelling public curiosity to morbid levels. What families like the Blairs need to realize is that publicity is not a bad thing after all and the media can help convince them.

Yours faithfully,
Sumona Banerjee, Calcutta

Question of answers

Sir — The Bharatiya Janata Party’s decision to play up the 25th anniversary of the imposition of the Emergency reminded Indians again of the atrocities that resulted from the efforts of Indira Gandhi and her son to gain compliance by the use of the rod. Those who had first hand experience of the Emergency’s repression were sought out for interviews to remind people what it meant to have constitutional rights taken away and the democratic process suppressed.

But are constitutional rights secure now? The Telegraph’s June 26 edition was full of reports on how people had been denied the right to vote in the Calcutta and Salt Lake civic elections and how the entire polling process had been rigged. Hordes are massacred in villages in Bihar and no culprit is ever caught. Graham Staines and his two minor sons were burnt alive and the culprit has not been punished till date. There are thousands of people who are harassed by governing bodies everyday, but there is no one to listen. What is the difference between the Emergency and the situation prevailing in India today? Can we say truthfully that we are living in a secular, democratic, constitutional India?

Yours faithfully,
Sushma Jalan, via email

Sir — Sunanda K. Datta-Ray understates the fact that for the average Indian in the cities, the difference between the functioning of the government and the forms of governing is so imperceptible that all he cares about are trains running on time and civic amenities being easily available (“The great folk-myth of India”, June 25). He applauds when civil servants become too afraid to be callous or corrupt and civil disorders are swept under the carpet. It really matters little to him if these are the fruits of a draconian military regime or the fear generated by an adventurous power usurper. This was perhaps the reason for the Indian middle class’s tacit approval of the Emergency in 1975.

Similarly, it is not difficult to understand the indifference of the rural poor to the government since the rights to freedom of speech and justice do not mean much to him. Otherwise, how does one explain the fact that the same electorate which rejected Indira Gandhi in 1977 for her excesses during the Emergency brought her back to power in 1980, apparently tired of the complete lack of governance of the Janata Party?

Yours faithfully,
Susanta Kumar Biswas, Calcutta

Sir — There is little doubt the Emergency adversely affected ambitious politicians and the impetuous fourth estate. The latter had been exploiting the right to freedom of speech and expression by publishing whatever it wished without fear of penalty. Political leaders got away with provoking trade unions to call strikes, thereby bringing industrial production to a standstill. No sooner was Emergency declared, politicians interned and the press censored than the obstructions to industrial growth were removed. Work performance in government offices and undertakings suddenly improved. The all round discipline soon led to economic progress in 1976-78.

Today, discipline is as much needed if the country is to make economic progress. That indiscipline is again becoming rampant is evident from the frequent strikes declared by various unions, be it of doctors, students or industrial workers. Corruption, the criminalization of politics and the insurgencies in the Northeast and Kashmir cannot be effectively checked by a soft democratic regime.

Yours faithfully,
H.C. Johari, Calcutta

Playing god

Sir — Instead of god, it might well be the physicians who will be out of jobs soon (“Science learns human alphabet in book of life”, June 27). Starting from common cold to cancer, almost all major diseases have been traced to genetic anomalies. If the discovery of the human genome map can be utilized to create a genetically perfect human race then people will not have to visit the doctor every now and then. Pregnant women would only have to go to genetic engineers to deliver genetically perfect babies. People will be spared the ordeal of undergoing painful and even wrong treatment (specially in India) by doctors. But it will take ages to reach that level of sophistication in medical science.

The research that was started by George Mendel on garden peas to decipher the laws governing heredity has finally reached its culmination with the mapping of the human genome. Medical scientists, instead of fighting over patent rights, should concentrate on how to use this discovery for the welfare of mankind. If properly used, the advantages of this discovery can greatly outnumber its disadvantages.

Yours faithfully,
Debjani Kundu, via email

Sir — The success in preparing a working draft of the human genetic code is an outstanding achievement not only of our times but of human history. This will enable scientists to pinpoint the causes of various diseases like cancer and help them to evolve a treatment. This will help prevent diseases and eradicate many hereditary ailments. However, every innovation has a dark side. The idea of cloning humans along with the prospect of an increase of abortions are cause for concern.

Yours faithfully,
Sandeep Patra, Bhubaneswar

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