Sunday, July 24, 2005

The Club of 13

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar : The Club of 13

The twenty-first century definition of the national interest is economic power and nuclear power, because prosperity is the guarantor of internal stability and nuclear capability the true protection against external aggression. All nations in their senses want the first. For varying reasons a fortunate few nations have both, or can hope for both. America, Britain and France have both. China, Russia and Israel possess greater military power than economic power, but are catching up. India and Pakistan are nuclear powers without being economic powers, but India’s economy is now very significant steps ahead of Pakistan’s. North Korea has enough nuclear capability to protect its borders from American troops stationed there.




An era is a long and distinct phase of history; an age, although it sounds longer, represents a shorter period, "the length of time that person or thing has existed".
The operative meaning of concepts changes with the shift of an age. Nationalism as a concept includes both identity as well as the ability to defend the national interest. The first is incomplete without the second. If we assume that modern Indian nationalism begins with the age of Mahatma Gandhi then he expanded the identity to include the poor, the untouchable, the weak into the national struggle; and made mass mobilisation into his weapon to protect the national interest.

Jawaharlal Nehru, who had to redefine its purposes in the context of a free nation and an effective state, upped the ante to create an international alliance against traditional and modern imperialists by creating a movement that refused to align itself with either the West or the Soviet Union. At home Nehru concentrated on an industrial base (the "temples of modern India") and a knowledge infrastructure which could become the springboard of a modern economy.

Indira Gandhi inherited an India mired in famine and language riots, and an Indian Army that had been humiliated against China in 1962 and battled out a draw against Pakistan in 1965. Her thrust was on putting new life into the wheat fields, where the Green Revolution was born, and a new heart into the armed forces, which delivered victory on the battlefields of Bangladesh.

The twenty-first century definition of the national interest is economic power and nuclear power, because prosperity is the guarantor of internal stability and nuclear capability the true protection against external aggression. All nations in their senses want the first. For varying reasons a fortunate few nations have both, or can hope for both. America, Britain and France have both. China, Russia and Israel possess greater military power than economic power, but are catching up. India and Pakistan are nuclear powers without being economic powers, but India’s economy is now very significant steps ahead of Pakistan’s. North Korea has enough nuclear capability to protect its borders from American troops stationed there.

Iran is the hidden fist. It may not have much of an economy, but it has oil, which enables it to survive a harsh cordon thrown by the United States. And it is widely believed that its unknown nuclear capability has either achieved a clandestine weapons programme or is on the verge of one. For Iran the linkage between national interest and nuclear capability is particularly strong. Iranians believed that this is the only real deterrence against American aggression. While there were other reasons, a principal reason for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory over the favourite Hashemi Rafsanjani in the recent Iranian presidential election was the suspicion that the latter could have compromised Iran’s nuclear power to the United States.

It isn’t only fringe nuclear states like North Korea or Israel who treat nuclear weapons as their defence guarantee. Israel, which has never admitted to possessing nuclear weapons or tested a device, retains the capability as its guarantee against annihilation by potentially hostile neighbours. And just in case anyone missed the point, China’s General Zhu Chenghu said, during the last fortnight, while discussing the possibility of American involvement in any conflict with Taiwan, "If the Americans are determined to interfere (then) we will be determined to respond … with nuclear weapons". What was Washington’s response? To grin and bear it. Just as it had done when a little while ago another Chinese general pointed out that China’s nuclear missiles could hit California. It wasn’t a threat. Just something for the record.

This is why the controversy over the agreement that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has signed with President George Bush is inevitable. India’s nuclear capability, built by every Prime Minister since freedom across party lines, created without the permission of the West or the Soviet Union, constructed despite their active hostility by Indian scientists and them alone, is at the heart of India’s sense of itself as a power that, after a long while in its turbulent history, will not take dictation from anyone. Any suspicion that a Prime Minister has taken dictation from Washington does not travel well with public opinion.

No one expects complete transparency on issues as complex as nuclear weapons. It is possible that gains have been made by Delhi beyond the verbal fluff offered by Bush, as for instance the patronising statement that India is a responsible nuclear power without according it a formal status. Bush pointedly and categorically rejected this option. The rest of what he has offered is subject to Congress. Dr Singh might want to make a phone call to Islamabad to check what Congress did to Pakistan F16s. However, while none of the possible gains are immediate, all the concessions made by Dr Manmohan Singh could become operational at once.

The concessions are major. If you want to know why separating civilian and military nuclear facilities and programmes is important, then all you have to do is check out why the United States has been so insistent about what seems an operational rather than a fundamental reality. You should also check why no other nuclear nation has accepted such a condition. The short answer is that separation will curtail our flexibility in determining the size of our nuclear capability. I hope Islamabad and Beijing have sent Washington a thank you note. They could do it on a common letterhead.

We have also allowed international inspectors free access to our facilities everywhere and at any time. The protection that every Prime Minister from Nehru to Vajpayee gave to our nuclear scientists has been removed. Think about it.

One of the key elements of our ongoing research is the thorium programme which can make nuclear fuel imports irrelevant. Will inspectors now monitor our scientists there?

Public opinion, and even specialist opinion, is also created by the context. Dr Singh has courted his British and American hosts in language that sounds more obsequious than friendly. We heard, from Oxford, about the splendours of the British Raj, which had, among its missions, a responsibility to "civilise" native Indians. Now we hear Dr Singh tell us, from Washington, that anyone who is civilised anywhere in the world cannot but support Bush. Who on earth thinks up such statements for the Prime Minister? Or does he do so himself?

Still, froth is of limited consequence, however soapy it might be. The Prime Minister’s visit was preceded by a Indo-US defence pact which has raised questions that have not been answered. And Dr Singh ended his visit to Washington with a shocking statement casting doubt on the legitimacy of the Iran pipeline. Dr Manmohan Singh is trying to reverse the declared decision of his own Cabinet (a coalition Cabinet, by the way, not just a Congress one) on dictation from Washington. This is unacceptable. The oil minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, has made it clear through his ministry officials that the project remains on track. I hope he does not have to pay a price and lose his portfolio for taking a stand.

Dr Manmohan Singh is at a crisis point in his tenure as India’s 13th Prime Minister. (There have been 14 prime ministerial terms but 13 Prime Ministers.) His luck is not in the number. It is in his own hands. He is still seen as a decent, honest, good man. But one flaw is beginning to stain his public image. He is beginning to get a reputation for weakness, and of being manipulated, of taking dictation, often against his own instincts and his own will. A vague view can easily consolidate into a conviction, particularly if it is tinged with suspicion that there is a puppeteer in Washington. It will be up to the Prime Minister to use Parliament to eliminate misgivings.

The Indian voter welcomes each new Prime Minister with trust, affection and almost unlimited power. Most of the Club of 13 ended lonely, unloved and without a modicum of influence. It is up to Dr Manmohan Singh to determine how he will be remembered.

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