India’s Nuclear Conundrum

I was reading Amartya Sen’s “The Argumentative Indian” in which he has a chapter about India’s decision to test nuclear weapons in 1998. Sen’s piece is well reasoned and concludes (rightfully) that the Vajpayee government’s decision was a mistaken one. Sen analyses the decision along two dimensions, ethical and pragmatic. The ethical question is whether it is morally defensible to have nuclear weapons, and as any reasonable person would conclude, the possession of genocidal arms of any kind is dubious (to say the very least). Despite the five big powers’ — U.S, Russia, England, France and China- hypocrisy in this matter, their criminality doesn’t make our decision right.

The pragmatic question is whether the tests helped India’s cause, to become a big power in its own right. Here, Sen’s conclusions are less convincing. He argues that it lead to the perception of India and Pakistan as petulant children with dreadfully dangerous toys in their hands. Furthermore, he thinks that India has a better chance of being taken seriously as an economic power and a democracy than as a nuclear weapon state. Maybe that was the case in 1998 or even in 2003. But with the kind of overtures being made by the US this year, reasonable observers can conclude that in the long run, exploding nuclear weapons brought us half way to the high table. Indeed India’s vote against Iran should be seen in this light, where India is now trying to portray itself as a responsible nuclear power — which basically means not letting other people have what you have. Furthermore, the fact that Iraq, which did not have nuclear weapons, got invaded and North Korea, which does, did not, has got to be on the minds of decision makers in every non-western country.

However, Sen missed an essential dimension of the decision to go public about nuclear weapons, namely, the psychological. South Asian elites have always wanted the trappings of international power, in which nuclear weapons play an important role. It is of one piece with the building of TIFR’s and IIT’s and other elite institutions, whose only objective is to let some Indians claim to be on par with the best of the West. These elites find themselves in an unenviable position, where on the one hand, they have to battle centuries of Western racism (which, when it comes to the nuclear issue is alive and thriving. To take one random example, the New York Times’ position on India’s nuclear weapons can be summarized in one phrase “these darkies don’t know how to handle this stuff”), and on the other hand, they don’t have enough of a grounding in their own cultural resources in order to create alternative ways to maintain their dignity as a people and as a civilization. I mean, why is it that the only way to get respect is to achieve goals that have been set by the West? Exploding nuclear weapons demonstrates that we have bought into the logic of power that western nation states have been practicing, disastrously, for centuries.

I am not surprised that the Congress and the BJP both abandoned Gandhi, for he was trying to articulate a third way, which changed the very rules by which the game of power was going to be played. Indian elites are so Macaulay-ized, and that includes the RSS types, that they cannot conceive of such a possibility.

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