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Vajpayee’s Political Bomb

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Numerous important studies exist explaining why do states acquire nuclear warheads across the globe. Security, regional hegemony, power, prestige, status, technology and domestic determinisms have largely accepted by optimists and pessimists for nuclear proliferation.

For instance, the United States and the United Kingdom develop nuclear weapons for regional hegemony, former Soviet Union, France, China, Israel, South Africa, Pakistan, and North Korea have manufactured nukes for security.  

However, India’s case is dissimilar with rest of all nuclear weapon states. Indian as well as non-Indian academic pundits provide different studies and explanations regarding India’s nuclear tests. Realists and neo-realists argue that India went nuclear for security and regional hegemony. While some argue that India has tested nuclear devices in summer in 1998 for prestige, power, and status factor. Interestingly, few academic think tanks have argued that India joined the nuclear club for domestic politics considerations.

My study also understands that domestic factor played an important role for Vajpayee’s government to go overtly nuclear in May 1998. Atal Bihari Vajpayee first appeared in Indian politics as a foreign minister from 1977 to 1979 in the Janata government under Morarji Desai. His tenure was short that is why Indian people hardly got inspired by him. After the Pokhran explosion in May 1974, Congress was praised by the RSS and other Hindu hardliners who worshipped nuclear energy for prestige, power, and status. However, Congress did not succeed to continue their government with the nuclear explosion. Also, Congress did not consider nukes as a tool for power, prestige, and status rather a regrettable necessity, a terrible weapon fit only for deterrence.  

In 1996, Vajpayee became prime minister of India. However, he enjoyed the office only for thirteen days. Before Vajpayee’s tenure of prime ministership, Congress government under Narasimha Rao was willing to go nuclear in 1995 but due to fear of economic sanctions and the US detection of nuclear test preparations in Pokhran desert, he decided not to proceed. The opportunity was left for Vajpayee, who without losing much time ordered the nuclear scientist for the atomic bomb tests in 1996. Unfortunately, the tests were halted when it became clear that Vajpayee would not be able to win a parliamentary vote of confidence.

Vajpayee was struggling for survival in Indian politics. He had lost the opportunity in 1996 to win the confidence of Indian people. Vajpayee again became prime minister of India on 20 March 1998 after forming a great alliance of nearly twenty allied parties under National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The maximum number of ministries were under the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). The opportunity for nuclear tests which Vajpayee lost in 1996 was in his mind. After holding the office of prime ministership in 1998, het met nuclear scientists and discussed about the future of India’s nuclear programme. Subsequently, military engineers were ordered to prepare the site for testing. Interestingly, Pakistan’s Ghauri missile test on 9 April 1998 helped Vajpayee to went nuclear. However, Ghauri missile test was an excuse, Vajpayee was desperately searching for justifications to go overtly nuclear in 1996 and 1998.  

Vajpayee thought that nuclear tests will provide a boost to his image and BJP will be truly declared a ‘nationalist party’. Also, Vajpayee was cautious about the 1996 fractured electoral verdict. To survive in politics, nuclear explosion was an important option. There was uproar at that time that the Vajpayee government will survive only for six months. There were numerous challenges before Vajpayee gave an order for the nuclear tests. Vajpayee was heading the cabinet with the support of allied parties, it was very difficult for him to get majority of votes for nuclear tests. It was the main reason that Vajpayee did not consult the union ministers for the actual date of nuclear tests. Brajesh Mishra and Jaswant Singh were only two ministers with whom Vajpayee had discussed the actual date of testing. L. K. Advani (Home Minister) was told about the test a day before the actual testing. Surprisingly, majority of ministers were totally unaware of the secret nuclear meetings and about the decision to blast the deserts of Pokhran once again.  

On 11 May and 13 May 1998, five nuclear devices were tested in Pokhran desert of Rajasthan. After the tests, the reason for nuclear explosions were claimed mostly external threat form China and Chinese nuclear technology to Pakistan. The domestic political factor was totally eschewed to win the emotions of the Indian people.

However, numerous studies and explanations place India’s nuclear programme in the ‘domestic politics model’. The nuclear experts like Kanti Bajpai, Achin Vanaik, Praful Bidwai, Scott Sagan, Itty Abraham, George Perkovich and many others have listed India nuclear tests in domestic determinants. The nuclear weapons have served the parochial interests of at least some actors within the states. Vajpayee case fits to justify the domestic political consideration factor for nuclear testing, who had intentionally ordered nuclear tests in summer 1998 for his survival and image.

After the nuclear tests, Vajpayee was declared a national hero, ‘the right man in the wrong party’. Indian media particular television has praised Vajpayee for a daring decision which Congress failed to take in its tenure after having all the time to do so. The BJP succeed to play politics with a bomb. The election slogan of BJP Sabko dekha baar-baar, humko parkhen ek bar (You have seen every party; now test us once) justifies that BJP was going for nuclear tests which Congress failed to do.

It was Vajpayee and his decision for nuclear tests in 1998 that BJP achieved strength and popularity in India. Also, the party was succeeded in claiming itself as a ‘nationalist party’. Vajpayee who was unknown to general pubic was projected with Nehruvian figure with charming personal qualities after the nuclear explosions. The nuclear tests gave Vajpayee a warm welcome from the middle class Indian people, who perceived him as being moderate, simple, and fun-loving man.

Kanti Bajpai argued that Vajpayee became a crowd catcher in India after the nuclear tests. The Congress was blamed as a party of “pseudo-secularists’ by L.K. Advani. Sonia Gandhi was taunted as ‘foreigner’ not fit to rule India. It was over all the ‘nuclear bomb’ that gave a momentum to the BJP to attack Congress and changed the political journey of BJP in general and Vajpayee in particular in India. Interestingly, Congress took lessons of the nuclear politics from the BJP, the US-India civil nuclear deal was signed between India and the United States in 2005 under the Congress government to accelerate the nuclear weapons programme.

In better terms, when government faces troubles at home, it starts focusing on external threat to divert the attention of the general public. Karthika Sasikumar and Christopher Way argued in his piece Testing Theories of Proliferation in South Asia that for vote bank, the government with an insure hold on power may seek to rally support around nationalism by going nuclear. The BJP used the nuclear card after the nuclear tests to win the emotions of the people. Several occasions during the election rally, BJP have highlighted India’s success from “cow dung power” to “Nuclear Power”. Also, Scott Sagan argued that the nuclear weapons were perhaps relevant to the unresolved Kashmir issue to win the emotions of public in India.   

Thus, it is clear that the domestic determinant plays an important role in India’s nuclear decisions. Also, it is true that both the BJP and Congress now highlight the nuclear card for winning the emotions of the public to strengthen the domestic politics for their own interests. For instance, the importance of nuclear submarines, nuclear air bombers, missile defence systems are highly debated in India. During republic days, different varieties of nuclear capable missiles and nuclear air bombers are disclosed annually to win the confidence of the public.

Rameez Raja is pursuing Ph. D at Department of Political Science, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He specializes in India’s nuclear policy. His writings have previously appeared in Rising Kashmir, Café Dissensus Everyday, Kafila, South Asia Journal, Foreign Policy News, Modern Diplomacy, Pakistan Observer, Kashmir Observer, and Kashmir Monitor. Email ID: rameezrajaa23[at]gmail.com

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South Asia

Taliban and the crisis in Afghanistan

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Source: Twitter

In 2021, the Afghan Taliban took back control of Afghanistan after fighting a rebellion for twenty years. The Taliban reformed and began regaining territory less than 10 years after the American-led invasion that overthrew the previous regime in 2001. In line with a 2020 peace agreement with the Taliban, they staged a swift assault as the US started to evacuate its last forces from Afghanistan.

Even though they promised to preserve the rights of women and communities of religious and racial minorities, the Taliban have enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law. The Taliban have failed to provide Afghans with sufficient food supplies and economic possibilities as they have evolved from an insurgent organization to a functioning administration.

Numerous instances of human rights violations have been documented by the UN mission in Afghanistan. Because the Taliban scared off journalists and put limits on press freedom, more than 200 news outlets had to close. Activists and protesters have been tracked and forcefully disappeared, and their government has ruthlessly suppressed protests. They also reinstated the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which was previously in place, and enforced laws against actions judged to be contrary to Islam. They instructed judges to apply their version of sharia in November 2022; in the following weeks, authorities resumed public hangings and floggings.

Women’s rights have been undermined. Due to restrictions put in place by the Taliban, girls are not allowed to go to high school, and women are not allowed to go to college or teach there. The group banned women from working for local and international voluntary groups in December 2022. According to estimates from the UN Development Program (UNDP), limiting women’s employment might cost Afghanistan’s GDP up to 5%. Amnesty International reports a substantial increase in the number of women jailed for defying discriminatory rules, such as those requiring women to cover their whole bodies while in public and to only appear with male chaperones. In addition, there are now more child marriages.

The UNDP says that the Taliban’s rule has also taken away the gains that Afghans made in their living conditions in the 20 years after the US invasion. In a study from October 2022, the organization claimed that practically all Afghans were living in poverty. Since the takeover, the economy has contracted by up to 30%, and there have been an estimated 700,000 job losses. More than 90% of individuals are impacted by food insecurity. The problem is getting worse because several countries and international groups have stopped giving aid, which is vital to the economy and public health.

International observers are nonetheless worried that the Taliban pose a danger to national and international security through their funding of terrorist groups, especially Al-Qaeda. Taliban leadership might convert Afghanistan into a haven for terrorists who could launch attacks against the US and its allies, despite Taliban pledges that the country’s territory wouldn’t be used against the security of any other country. The violence has also increased along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, which has always supported the Taliban. Tehrik-e-Taliban, a terrorist organization commonly referred to as the Pakistani Taliban, has gained strength due to the Taliban’s ascent to power. The organization broke off a cease-fire with the Pakistani government in 2022 and began carrying out assaults throughout the nation. Officials from Pakistan have charged the Afghan Taliban with giving the extremists a safe harbor in their country.

For many years, the Afghan government relied on help from a number of countries; according to 2019 World Bank research, contributions from foreign partners funded 75% of the government’s public expenditures. Many of these countries stopped off aid when the Taliban took control, fueling concerns about potential future economic turmoil. Nevertheless, aid rose in 2022 as donors sent more than $2.6 billion. The US has donated more than $1.1 billion in help since the coup. However, according to UN authorities, the pledges fell short of the nation’s humanitarian requirements.

Many Western countries, most notably the US, shut down their diplomatic posts in Afghanistan when the Taliban took power. Diplomatic relations and recognition have been withheld from the Taliban regime, which refers to Afghanistan as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The UN General Assembly has also postponed a decision on who would indefinitely represent Afghanistan at the UN. The Taliban are now being investigated by the International Criminal Court for suspected atrocities, including crimes against humanity, committed against Afghans.

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South Asia

Decoding Donald Lu’s Visit: A Positive Upward in US-Bangladesh Relations?

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The U.S Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Donald Lu paid a visit from January 12 to 15. During his brief but swarming itinerary the two parties discussed various issues ranging from diplomatic to political. Interestingly, this is the 11th visit of any U.S high-official in the past two years. The frequent swapping of delegations from the both sides pose a critical juncture between the U.S-Bangladesh relationship. Experts believe that recurrent visits from US high-ups are definitely an auspicious sign between the relationship of the two nations. Therefore, the visit of Donald Lu is an offshoot of the “growing reciprocity and renewed engagement” between Dhaka and Washington.

Needless to say, Bangladesh has a long standing and steady relationship with the US since the latter recognized the former shortly after independence on April 04, 1972. Recently the US-Bangladesh celebrated the completion of 50 years of bilateral relationship and US President Joe Biden termed this as “robust partnership”. Amid such backdrop, it goes without saying that the recent visits signal to a significant positive tie-up between the two parties and the visit can be interpreted in the context of international and domestic backdrop of international politics.

The US is the largest market for Bangladesh’s RMG export. Naturally, the issue of GSP reinstatement plays a key role in bilateral camaraderie. Under such circumstances, Lu’s visit is important to hold talks of economic in the context of Bangladesh’s growing needs, especially after the LDC graduation. Moreover, in the annual Global Firepower 2023 Military Strength Ranking, Bangladesh is placed 40th out of 145 nations. On the other hand, Bangladesh came in 12th place on the GFP review’s list of ‘Strengths on the Rise,’ which emphasizes national military powers based on strong growth patterns until 2023. In this context, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and Acquisition and Cross-servicing Agreement (ACSA) agreement indicates to a deeper and strategic engagement from the US rationale.

Bangladesh’s stands at the heart of a strategic position of the US’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, which aims to counter the increasing footprint of China in the Indo-Pacific region. However, Bangladesh maintains a neutral position in terms of its foreign relations and has been carefully helming without taking any side of any major powers. Washington’s focus on free and fair election is important to maintain a stability in the greater Bay of Bengal neighborhood- an important feat in it’s IPS. Conversely, Bangladesh values economic partnership to sustain her ongoing upward trend. However, at the same time Bangladesh should be careful not to succumb to any pressure, a case in point when the Foreign Minister announced that the US proposed strategy is being vetted under the lens of economic opportunity.

On the domestic fore, arguably, the U.S has been advocating for a free and fair election, upholding democratic values, and condemning extra judicial excesses. However, continuous engagement between the two parties resulted helping to mitigate tensions and create a more positive atmosphere. The crux of Donald Lu’s visit is to reaffirm democratic ideals in state mechanism, rule based international system and Bangladesh to be part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Accordingly, Bangladesh has committed to hold a fair election and the recent decline of the controversial RAB’s extrajudicial excesses reported by Human Rights Watch as well as peaceful demonstrations of the opposition have been markedly praised by Donald Lu. From Bangladesh’s perspective rescinding of sanctions, reinstatement of GSP, and more support for Rohingya Refugees were reiterated. More importantly, Dhaka’s impartial foreign policy goals align with Washington’s interest in the South Asian region and it will be of American interest to consider Bangladesh as an important ally in the geopolitical chessboard of the Indo-Pacific region.  

However, the visit is also crucial for Donald Lu who is accused of meddling with the internal affairs of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. But, Donald Lu manifested his diplomatic acumen to “manage the fissures of the diplomatic ties’ and “highlight on the areas of convergence” in the recent visit. Evidently, the past year has been tumultuous for South Asian nations, following the collapse of Colombo, the Pakistani Economic Crisis and the revolving debt crisis around the region. Amongst her neighbors, Bangladesh has endured relatively steady political and economic pursuit. Therefore, US needs to formulate a comprehensive South Asian policy to accommodate the interests of the respective nations on its own merit.

Bangladesh’s relationship with the U.S is vital in both economic and political stance. Continued engagement and partnership between the two states is critical for the security of South Asia as well as Bangladesh’s ongoing economic prosperity. On a pragmatic tone, it would take more than just this one visit for Bangladesh to solve these complex geopolitical issues. For now, the visit has symbolized strengthening of U.S-Bangladesh relationship going forward by exonerating the mutual interests to diplomatically resolve pressing bilateral issues and elevation of continuous engagement.

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South Asia

Praiseworthy Development of RAB in the Last Year

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Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) image source: benarnews.org

On December 10th 2021, the United States of America (USA) announced sanctions against Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and its seven current and former officials on allegations of Human Rights violation. Such unilateral decisions of the US on the elite force surprised many. But Bangladesh chose to respond maturely through diplomatic communication. Since then, Bangladesh increased diplomatic engagement with the US, a method lauded by many as ‘prudent’ also.

Since the sanction, Bangladesh enhanced its effort to uphold the Human Rights situation in Bangladesh. RAB as an elite force also acknowledged the sanction and behaved in a more professional way. And it seems after one year, there are significant developments regarding both RAB and government policy. Foreign dignitaries and organizations are also lauding these developments.

Efforts from Bangladesh

After the announcement of the sanctions, Bangladesh immediately contacted the US diplomatic institutions to understand and assess the situation. As a part of the efforts, Bangladesh established Human Rights Cell in the Foreign Ministry under its United Nations wing.

Bangladesh also increased its diplomatic communications with the US, not necessarily because of the sanctions, but also due to growing geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region, and commitment to deepen bilateral relations with the US. In the last two years, both countries undertook 18 bilateral visits of mid and high-level. Bangladesh sent 7 delegations to the US while the US sent 11 delegations including Donald Lu’s latest.

Both countries also hold the bilateral Partnership Dialogue and Security Dialogue in March and April of 2022. In the same year, they also celebrated 50 years of their anniversary. Bangladesh’s foreign minister also met his counterpart in April 2022.

While many rogue states such as North Korea, react to the US sanctions by projecting hard power or test-launching missile, Bangladesh resorted to diplomatic means to raise and provide an update about the agenda to its counterpart. Almost in all diplomatic meetings, Bangladesh raised its concern about the sanction. Bangladesh even gave a ‘non-paper’ dossier to Under-Secretary Victoria Nuland, when Nuland came to Bangladesh in March 2022.

Significant Developments

Since the US sanctions on 10th December 2021, the allegations of extrajudicial killings have gone down in Bangladesh. It has reached zero after one year. There were no new allegations of extrajudicial killing by RAB for the last 13 months. RAB’s name was not also mentioned in any other allegations or negative deeds. Therefore, RAB is maintaining a ‘clean record’ at least for last 13 months or so.

Apart from that, the Human Rights situation also improved in Bangladesh in the meantime as the government gave extra effort to project the situation to the international community. During Under Secretary Nuland’s visit in March, she also acknowledged that the situation has improved.

The US Assistant Secretary Donald Lu also acknowledged the further development regarding the allegations against RAB. Secretary Lu visited Bangladesh on January 14th and 15th. He also acknowledged the falling extrajudicial killing in Bangladesh. He also said that there was ‘tremendous progress’ in reducing extrajudicial killings after the US sanctions.

Home Minister Asaduzzaman Kamal also told the media that the US delegation is satisfied with RAB’s current activities. In another expert talk with The Business Standard, the Home Minister further said that the US also praised the actions of Bangladesh in combating militancy, terrorism, arson, and radicalism.

Apart from the US, global watchdogs are also acknowledging the fact. Human Rights Watch World Human Rights Report 2023 mentioned that there is a ‘drop-in abuse’ in Bangladesh (See Page 68).

Such transformation in the US perspective within only 13 months regarding a sanction is very unique considering the history of sanctions. Bangladesh’s diplomatic efforts and commitment to upholding Human Rights deserve praise in this regard. Till now Bangladesh is dealing with the issue prudently.

Lifting the sanctions in a diplomatic manner will require making it a national security interest for the USA. An elite force with a ‘clean record’ and its die-hard effort in curbing terrorism and militancy, fighting drug and human trafficking, and anti-piracy drive can easily draw US national security interest in this region. And RAB has the ability to become so. Considering the historic relations between the US and Bangladesh, the Sanctions are the only ‘strain’ in this bilateral relationship. Lastly, as there are praiseworthy developments, both countries are likely to pass beyond this issue in the near future if Bangladesh continues to maintain the positive trend.

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