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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

South Asia

Opposing Hindutava: US conference raises troubling questions

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Controversy over a recent ‘Dismantling Global Hindutava’ conference that targeted a politically charged expression of Hindu nationalism raises questions that go far beyond the anti-Muslim discriminatory policies of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and ruling party.

The conference and responses to it highlight a debilitating deterioration in the past two decades, especially since 9/11, of the standards of civility and etiquette that jeopardize civil, intelligent, and constructive debate and allow expressions of racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes to become mainstream.

Organizers of the conference that was co-sponsored by 53 American universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, Berkeley, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers, insisted that they distinguish between Hinduism and Hindutava, Mr. Modi’s notion of Hindu nationalism that enables discrimination against and attacks on India’s 200 million Muslims.

The distinction failed to impress critics who accused the organizers of Hinduphobia. Some critics charged that the framing of the conference demonstrated a pervasiveness of groupthink in academia and an unwillingness to tackle similar phenomena in other major religions, particularly Islam.

The campaign against the conference appeared to have been organized predominantly by organizations in the United States with links to militant right-wing Hindu nationalist groups in India, including some with a history of violence. The conference’s most militant critics threatened violence against conference speakers and their families, prompting some participants to withdraw from the event.

Opponents of political Islam noted that Western academia has not organized a similar conference about the politicization of the faith even though powerful states like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt have lobbied Western capitals against the Muslim Brotherhood and its Turkish and Qatari supporters with notable successes in France, Austria, Belgium and Britain.

Academia was likely to have been hesitant to tackle political Islam because Islamophobia is far more prevalent than Hinduphobia.

Moreover, perceptions of political Islam, are far more complex and convoluted. Islam is frequently conflated with political expressions and interpretations of the faith run a gamut from supremacist and conservative to more liberal and tolerant. They also lump together groups that adhere and respect the election process and ones that advocate violent jihad.

Scholars and analysts declared an end to political Islam’s heyday with the military coup in Egypt in 2013 that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother, who was elected president in Egypt’s first and only free and fair poll. Political Islam’s alleged swansong loomed even larger with this year’s setbacks for two of the most moderate Islamist political parties in Tunisia and Morocco as well as hints that Turkey may restrict activities of Islamists operating in exile from Istanbul.

A more fundamental criticism of the framing of the Hindutava conference is its failure to put Hindutava in a broader context.

That context involves the undermining of the social cohesion of societies made up of collections of diverse ethnic and religious communities since Osama bin Laden’s 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

The attacks fueled the rise of ultra-nationalism and politicized expressions of religious ultra-conservatism not only in the Hindu world but also in the worlds of other major religions.

These include politicized ultra-conservative Islam, politicized Evangelism and Buddhist nationalism. Right-wing religious nationalism in Israel, unlike Islamism and politicized Evangelism, is shaped by ultra-nationalism rather than religious ultra-conservatism.

The worlds of religious ultra-nationalism and politicized expressions of religious ultra-conservatism are often mutually reinforcing.

Scholar Cynthia Miller-Idriss’s assessment of the impact of Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the United States is equally true for India or Europe.

“In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the rise of violent jihadism reshaped American politics in ways that created fertile ground for right-wing extremism. The attacks were a gift to peddlers of xenophobia, white supremacism, and Christian nationalism: as dark-skinned Muslim foreigners bent on murdering Americans, Al-Qaeda terrorists and their ilk seemed to have stepped out of a far-right fever dream,” Ms. Miller-Idriss said.

“Almost overnight, the United States and European countries abounded with precisely the fears that the far-right had been trying to stoke for decades,” she added.

The comparison of politically charged militant nationalist and ultra-conservative expressions of diverse religions takes on added significance in a world that has seen the emergence of civilizationalist leaders.

Scholar Sumantra Bose attributes the rise of religious nationalism in non-Western states like Turkey and India to the fact that they never adopted the Western principle of separation of state and church.

Instead, they based their secularism on the principle of state intervention and regulation of the religious sphere. As a result, the rejection of secularism in Turkey and India fits a global trend that conflates a dominant religious identity with national identity.

Sarah Kamali, the author of a recently published book that compares militant white nationalists to militant Islamists in the United States, notes similar patterns while drawing parallels between far-right xenophobes and militant Islamists.

Militant Islamists’ “sense of victimhood […] is similar to that of their White nationalist counterparts in that [it] is constructed and exploited to justify their violence… Both mutually – and exclusively – target America for the purpose of claiming the nation as theirs and theirs alone, either as a White ethno-state or as part of a global caliphate,” Ms. Kamali writes.

Similarly, the Taliban defeat of a superpower energized militant Islamists, as well as proponents of Hindutava, with Islamophobic narratives spun by Mr. Modi’s followers gaining new fodder with the assertion that India was being encircled by Muslim states hosting religious extremists.

Modi is essentially helping the recruitment of…jihadist groups by taking such a hard, repressive line against the Islamic community in India, who are now being forced to see themselves being repressed,” said Douglas London, the CIA’s counter-terrorism chief for South and South-West Asia until 2019.

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South Asia

Panjshir – the last stronghold of democracy in Afghanistan

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The Taliban’s rapid advance in Afghanistan has briefly stalled only in the face of strong resistance mounted by the people of the country’s recalcitrant mountainous province of Panjshir. Whoever controls the region’s passes controls the routes leading to China and Tajikistan, but to seize this mountain valley and, most importantly, to keep it permanently under control has always been a problem for all invaders. Eager to let the international community see for the first time in 40 years a united Afghanistan as a sign of their final victory, the radical Islamists were prepared to make any sacrifices, including filling the approaches to the Panjshir Valley up with dead bodies. Moreover, the Taliban’s longtime ally Pakistan, which, regardless of its status of an ally of the United States, has provided them with direct military support. In fact, Islamabad admitted its less than successful role when it proposed signing a truce to find and take out the bodies of its special Ops forces who had died during the attack on the valley. However, drones flown by Pakistani operators, professional commandos (possibly once trained by the Americans), air support and other pleasant gifts from the allies eventually bore fruit letting the Taliban be photographed in front of the mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Massoud Sr., the famous “Lion of Panjshir,” who controlled the valley from 1996 to 2001. The Islamists also took control of the province’s central city of Bazarak.

Having deprived the province much of its Internet access, the radicals, who control most of the Afghan territory, found it easier to wage an information war. Their claims of victories were now more difficult to contest, even though information about their retreat did reach the outside world. Reflective of the heavy losses suffered for the first time by the Taliban and their allies – the Haqqani Network and other remnants of al-Qaeda, as well as by the regular Pakistani army is the brief truce arranged by Islamabad. Looks like the mountain passes leading to Panjshir were literally filled up with corpses…

As for Massoud Jr., the young lion of Panjshir, and his supporters, they retreated to the mountains. In fact, they had nowhere to fall back to. The problem of Afghanistan is its ethnic diversity. Thus, the country is home to 23 percent of ethnic Tajiks, most of whom live in the Panjshir Valley. However, the Taliban rely mainly on the Pashtuns, who account for over 50 percent of the country’s population. As for the new masters of Afghanistan, they are ready to carry out ethnic cleansings and even commit outright genocide in order to bring the valley into submission. To make this happen they are going to resettle there their fellow Pashtun tribesmen. Local men aged between 12 and 50 are already being taken away and, according to the National Resistance Front, no one has seen them again. However, due to the information blockade, the Taliban will not hesitate to refute such facts. One thing is clear: Massoud’s Tajik fighters and the government troops that joined them are fighting for their lives, and there will be no honorable surrender!

The main question now is whether the young lion of Panjshir will receive the same support as his father once did, or will find himself without ammunition and food. After all, the Taliban leaders have reached certain agreements with the United States. Suffice it to mention the numerous remarks made, among others, by President Biden himself about the Taliban now being different from what they were 20 years ago.

But no, the Taliban`s remain the same – they have only hired new PR people. Meanwhile, hating to admit their defeat, Brussels and Washington will have to engage in a dialogue with those who are responsible for the tragedy of September 11, 2001, and for the numerous terrorist attacks in Europe. The Taliban are pretending to make minor cosmetic concessions. Minor indeed, since they are still depriving women of the opportunity to work and study, destroying higher and secondary education and brutally clamping down on people who simply do not want to live according to religious norms.

The United States is actually helping the “new-look” Taliban. Their potential opponents, including the famous Marshal Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, left the country under various guarantees, and Washington is trying to keep them from any further participation in the conflict. Democratic politicians naively believe that by creating an Islamic state and ending the protracted civil war in Afghanistan the Taliban will ensure stability in the region and will not move any further. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan do not think so and are strengthening their borders and preparing to protect their Afghan compatriots, because they know full well that the Taliban`s are not a national political party; they are a radical Islamist ideology.

It knows no borders and spreads like a cancerous tumor, destroying all pockets of Western culture. It can only be stopped by force. However, the two decades of US military presence in Afghanistan showed that Washington, which quickly took control of the country in 2001, simply had no strategy to keep it. The Afghans were given nothing that would appear to them more attractive than the ideas of radical Islam. As a result, the few Afghans who embrace European values are fleeing the country, and those who, like Massoud Jr., decided to fight for their freedom, now risk being left to face their enemy all by themselves.

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South Asia

Misjudgements in India’s Afghan policy

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India’s Afghan policy has always been obsessed with the desire to deny Pakistan the “strategic depth” that Pakistan, according to India’s perception, yearns. If India had a pragmatic policy, it would not have found itself whimpering and whining like a rueful baby over spilt milk.

India supported the invasion of Afghanistan by both the former Soviet Union and the USA, both losers. President Trump mocked Modi for having built a library for the Afghan people. Trump expected India to contribute foot soldiers, and by corollary, body packs to the Afghan crisis. India played all the tricks up its sleeves to convince the USA to make India a party to the US-Taliban talks. But the USA ditched not only Modi but also Ashraf Ghani to sign the Doha peace deal with the Taliban.

India’s external affairs minister still calls the Taliban government “a dispensation”. Interestingly, the USA has reluctantly accepted that the Taliban government is a de facto government.

Humanitarian crisis

The United Nations’ Development Programme has portrayed a bleak situation in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is faced with multifarious challenges. These include prolonged drought and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, upheaval caused by the current political transition: frozen foreign reserves, and rising poverty.

About 47 per cent of its people live below the dollar-a-day poverty line. If the poverty line is pushed to $2 a day, 90 per cent of Afghans would be poor. About 55 per cent of Afghans are illiterate.

Ninety seven percent of the population is at risk of sinking below the poverty line, As such, Afghanistan teeters on the brink of universal poverty. Half of the population is already in need of humanitarian support. The UNDP has proposed to access the most vulnerable nine million people by focusing on essential services, local livelihoods, basic income and small infrastructure.

Currently, the gross national product of Afghanistan is around $190 billion, just a little more than the $160 billion economy of Dhaka city. The country’s legal exports of goods and services every year account for $1 billion. It imports$6 billion worth of goods and services every year.

About 80 per cent of world production of opium comes from Afghanistan. Every year, Afghanistan produces nearly 10,000 tons of opium and the revenue generated from it amounts to $7 billion approximately. About 87 per cent of the income of opium producing farmers comes exclusively from this single product. The illicit opium export by Afghanistan is worth $2 billion every year. The role of opium is significant.

About 80 per cent of public expenditure in this country is funded by grants. Since 2002, the World Bank has provided Afghanistan with a total of $5.3 billion as development and emergency relief assistance. The IMF earmarked for Afghanistan $400 million in Special Drawing Rights (SDR) for combating the Covid-19 pandemic in the country.

The United States has frozen about $10 billion worth of Afghan assets held at various banks in Afghanistan. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has withdrawn the $400 million worth of SDRs allocated earlier to Afghanistan for addressing the Covid-19 crisis. The World Bank has not said anything as of yet, but it may also put restrictions on its funding to Afghanistan.

India’s lip service to Afghanistan

India provided around $3 billion in aid to fallen U.S.-backed Afghan government.  It trained the Afghan army and police. But now it is not willing to pay or pledge a penny to the Taliban government. Look at the following Times of India report:

“India did not pledge any money to the Taliban ruled Afghanistan probably for the first time in 20 years. That it has not done so as Jaishanker declared … (At UN, India offers support to Afghanistan but does not pledge money. The Times of India September 14, 2021).The Hindu, September 11, 2021

India’s tirade against Afghanistan

Indian policymakers and experts say they see no guarantees that Afghanistan won’t become a haven for militants. “Afghanistan may be poised to become a bottomless hole for all shades of radical, extremist and jihadi outfits somewhat similar to Iraq and Syria, only closer to India,” said Gautam Mukhopadhaya, who was India’s ambassador in Kabul between 2010 to 2013.  He added that the Taliban victory could have an “inspirational effect” not only for Kashmir’s rebels but wherever religiously-driven groups operate in the broader region… Lt. Gen Deependra Singh Hooda, former military commander for northern India between 2014-2016, said militant groups based across the border in Pakistan would “certainly try and push men” into Kashmir, following the Taliban victory in Afghanistan  (With Taliban’s rise, India sees renewed threat in Kashmir, Star Tribune September 14, 2021). “Meanwhile, Rajnath Singh conveyed to Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton that the rise of the Taliban raises serious security concerns for India and the region. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has appealed for an injection of cash into Afghanistan to avoid an economic meltdown that would spark a “catastrophic” situation for the Afghan people and be a “gift for terrorist groups.”). Afghan economic meltdown would be ‘gift for terrorists,’ says U.N. chief” (The Hindu, September 11, 2021)

 India’s former envoy to Kabul, Ambassador Gautam Mukhopadhyay is skeptical of the conciliatory statements by the taliban government. He advises: “We should welcome recent statements by Stanekzai and Anas Haqqani that suggest some independence from the ISI. But we should also ask some hard questions and judge them by their actions and words, and not let down our guard, both with regard to our multiple security concerns such as whether they can protect us from the Ias and ISI, sever ties with other terror groups, especially those supported by the ISI against India, deny Pakistan strategic depth, and preserve and build on our historic P2P and trade ties; and a genuinely inclusive govt in Afghanistan that accommodates the majority of Afghans who want the rights and freedoms enshrined in the 2004 Afghan Constitution or at least acceptable to the Afghan people.” (Taliban move to form govt, Naya Afghanistan brings new challenge for India, September 2, 2021).

Concluding remarks

India wants a “central role’ to be given to the UN in Afghanistan. India’s mumbo jumbo implies that Afghanistan should be made a UN protectorate. Indian media is never tired of calling the Afghan government a bunch of terrorists. They have even launched video games about it.

India needs to rethink how it can mend fences with Afghanistan that it regards a hothouse of terrorists.

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