The return of Dr Strangelove or: should we really stop worrying and learn to love India’s bomb?

Nadja-Christina Schneider

‘I have a brief announcement to make. Today at 1545 hours (1015 GMT), India conducted three underground nuclear tests in the Pokhran range. The tests conducted today were with a fission device, a low-yield device and a thermonuclear device. The measured yields are in line with expected values. Measurements have confirmed that there was no release of radioactivity into the atmosphere. These were contained explosions like in the experiment conducted in May 1974. I warmly congratulate the scientists and engineers who have carried out these successful tests'.

So announced Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on 11 May 1998. Brief, indeed, but with far-reaching consequences, it is this announcement that most vividly recalls Vajpayee's 1998-2004 premiership. In Ashok Kapur's book the nuclear tests that shocked the world and boosted India's position as a regional and international power seem to be nothing less than the telos of postcolonial Indian polity. Throughout the book's fourteen chapters, the bomb, or rather the accomplishment of India's present strategic, scientific and military power that it represents, serves as the sole measuring stick of India's post-1947 diplomatic and foreign policy.

Following the neo-realist school of thought in international relations, Kapur makes no effort to dissemble his wholehearted support for the ‘coercive diplomacy' behind India's 1998 nuclear tests. Nor does he conceal his admiration for the ideological and political agenda driving that strategy when he concludes, ‘Significantly, "soft fundamentalists" with political and military power, not secularists who have slogans and no constituents, have emerged as negotiating partners in Indian foreign affairs' (p 204).

A relentless critique of Nehru's foreign policy record

In his introductory chapter, the author analyses the scope of India's repositioning at three levels of contemporary strategic activity: the international level, where India has significantly increased its presence in the economic and strategic mainstream; on the Asian continent, which in Kapur's words represents ‘the centre of gravity of countervailing impulses in the modern world'; and India's ‘immediate neighbourhood', that is, the SAARC countries plus Myanmar, Afghanistan and China.

What really follows in the six subsequent chapters is first and foremost a relentless critique of the ‘Nehruvian record' of diplomatic and foreign policy, which Kapur later subsumes as Nehru's ‘failures'. The only ‘innovation' for which he lauds Nehru is the pursuit of India's nuclear option, which in the late 1990s became the main symbol of India's scientific power. While publicly emphasising peaceful uses of nuclear energy, Nehru and his advisers managed to establish links with Canada that ‘led to a transfer of critical bomb making technology under a peaceful guise' (p 116.).

Kapur presents Nehru above all as a product of foreign intellectual traditions and ideas (communism, the Soviet model of economic planning, British Fabian ideas and the world peace movement); as a prime minister under whose reign the ‘new Indian state disconnected Indian nationalism from traditional Indian philosophy' (p 18); and as the ‘shadowy British and Soviet collaborator' (p 37). To a certain extent, this characterisation serves to externalise Nehru from Indian traditions and history, and to associate him more closely with a colonial past and postcolonial situation in which India had not yet been ‘emancipated'from foreign domination.

Post-independence India - passive victim of the America-Pakistan-China triangle?

In an equally reductive perspective on Indian history, Kapur maintains that an ‘organic link' between Muslim and British power had emerged in the colonial situation, as ‘both shared a negative attitude about the potential role of "political Hinduism"' (p 17). After 1947, this ‘became an organic link between Muslim Pakistan and Anglo-American policy' (p 22). How and why this alleged ‘organic link' came into being and seamlessly took its postcolonial shape is an important question that remains unanswered. Nevertheless, in Kapur's account, the asserted symbiosis of anti-Indian powers and Nehru's inability to overcome it is blamed for the prolonged containment of India's geopolitical and strategic potential. Pakistan, America and China led an ‘anti-India coalition' later joined by Saudi Arabia, which introduced ‘Wahhabism' and an ‘Arabised militancy' into the region and politics of Afghanistan and Kashmir, respectively. More than once, Kapur depicts India under the ‘Nehruvians' as a ‘victim' of this American-Chinese-Pakistani policy.

He does give some credit to Indira Gandhi for showing her willingness in the 1971 Bangladesh campaign to use India's military strength to solve conflicts, and for conducting the 1974 nuclear test, but criticises her for ultimately remaining within her father's fundamental parameters. Similarly, Kapur argues that her successors Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao, V.P. Singh, Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral all remained ‘mired' in the Nehru paradigm. Even after the 1971 break-up, Pakistan remained determined ‘to balkanise India by supporting insurgency in Indian provinces including areas that were not in dispute as a result of Partition' (p 11). While remaining silent on the interior causes of civil conflicts and separatist tendencies in the 1980s, Kapur portrays not only the escalations in Kashmir but also in Punjab and the north-eastern areas as ‘Pakistani-sponsored insurgency' tolerated by the ‘UK-US-China' coalition.

‘Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret!'

In sum, Kapur argues that ‘"India" or "Hindu India" had been the object or victim of strategic triangles' (p 203). In his view the 1998 nuclear tests were not only a turning point; they were a true liberation from the stalemated situation, creating completely new conditions for Indo-Pakistani, Indo-American and Indo-Chinese relations and helped to finally overcome Nehruvian paradigms of postcolonial Indian policy. What Kapur calls a ‘soft type of Hinduism', which he rather questionably dissociates from ‘hardcore Hindutva', formed the ideological basis for the new coercive diplomacy and military strategy. In his eyes it was exactly this ‘authentic' Hindu/Indian nationalism that finally enabled India to overcome the continued reactive passivity of the Nehruvian era.

But why doesn't Kapur illuminate the whole spectrum of historical causes that brought Hindu nationalism into existence and reinforced it in the 1980s and 1990s? He inconsistently reduces the growth of Hindu nationalism to a mere ‘reaction' to the spread of ‘Islamic terror' and ‘Nehru's policies'. Through his account's incomprehensible selectivity, Kapur reinforces the ‘reactive character' of Indian diplomatic and foreign policy, an irony that seems lost on him.

Dr Nadja-Christina Schneider
Institute of Asian and African Studies
Humboldt University Berlin