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Firing blanks

December 1990: Kuwait has been invaded by Saddam Hussein and the US is creating a coalition to recapture it.

india Updated: Feb 10, 2006 03:53 IST

December 1990: Kuwait has been invaded by Saddam Hussein and the US is creating a coalition to recapture it. In Pakistan, Chief of Army Staff, General Mirza Aslam Beg, declares his country will not send troops to fight Iraq. The master-strategist moots a policy of ‘strategic defiance’ of the US. Beg’s strategy comes apart as Saddam collapses, but that hasn’t since stopped the Azamgarh-born general from forecasting perdition for the US (routinely in Afghanistan since 2001, and then again in Iraq beginning in 2003).

February 2006: a prophet without honour in his country, Beg’s ideas have found root in India. Across the land, ‘strategic defiance’ — code for non-cooperation with the US — seems to have become the idea of the day. Retired ambassadors who had routinely ignored India’s security concerns in the interests of diplomacy are suddenly worrying about it; atomic scientists who had never heard of diplomacy, unexpectedly become vocal about it; peaceniks who opposed India’s nuclear tests start fretting about the capping of the Indian nuclear arsenal; two parties at the opposite ends of the political spectrum, the BJP and the CPI(M), discover congruence in their foreign policies.

There is a certain defensiveness suggested by the word ‘defiance’, which connotes an intention of contending, though not quite the act of doing so. It is distinct from the ‘anti-imperialist struggles’ or national liberation wars of the Fifties and Sixties. Strategic defiance today is, at one level, about preventing regime change, as in the case of Iran, Syria, North Korea and Cuba. At another level it is about posture and slogan, press statements and declarations, trashing of cities to protest G-8 or WTO meetings. Or, in the case of India, backing Iran’s dubious nuclear activities in the name of sovereignty; derailing a favourable nuclear agreement because it happens to be with the US, and attacking globalisation as neo-liberalism.

This new-found strategic vision is a product of contemporary global history where those who fought against the US in the Fifties and Sixties — China, Russia and Vietnam — have discovered the virtues of strategic engagement. The rhetorical ring of ‘strategic defiance’ hardly has any resonance in these countries. They, after all, have been there and done that. But it does reverberate in the memories of Third World elites who indirectly warmed themselves in the fires of these struggles, without quite being scorched by them.

Indian anti-imperialism was always more of posture and slogan because we negotiated our imperial master away, and our Yenan remained a non-starter. Nehru’s ersatz socialism and fake non-alignment ‘strategically co-opted’ the second strongest political force at the time of Independence, the Communist Party of India. Dislike and suspicion of the US are deeply embedded in the minds of the heirs of Nehru, as much as those of B.T. Ranadive and P.C. Joshi. Both these strands have now come together in India not as an actual anti-imperialist struggle of old, but in the form of posture and slogan encapsulated by the words, ‘strategic defiance’. History in Marx’s memorable words is repeating itself, this time in somewhat farcical terms.

With such a flawed perspective, is it surprising that strategic defiance is marked by failure? Pakistani journalist Khaled Ahmed once said, “He has been proved wrong so many times that people who once hated America have started loving it simply to avoid getting short-changed by Aslam Beg’s analyses.” Like Saddam in 1990, Iran may yet allow its rhetoric to slide to war. But most ‘strategic defiance’ is about heroic gesture and T-shirts with the appropriate message. Recall, in 1990, after the slogans, Beg quietly acquiesced in sending Pakistani troops to join the coalition.

We would be wise, however, not to ignore the sinister edge to even gestures. Beg’s strategic defiance led him to conspire with his ISI chief Hamid Gul to send Pakistani jehadis into Kashmir and exploit the opening made by the JKLF. A.Q. Khan has disclosed that Beg approved sharing nuclear weapons technology with Iran. Beg denies this, but according to Ishaq Dar, Pakistan’s minister of finance in the Nawaz Sharif government, he had suggested a $ 12 billion price for nuclear assistance to Iran.

The Indian acolytes of strategic defiance, too, following Beg have a tendency to get things wrong, and by the same measure, compelling the country to adopt self-destructive policies. Without quite considering the evidence that persuaded 27 out of the 35 countries in the IAEA board to tell Iran that it needs to clarify serious doubts about its nuclear intentions, the Left weighed into the government. As it is, it is difficult to explain Iranian actions — the 20-year secrecy, the razing of the Lavisian site, the late disclosure that the A.Q. Khan network had offered it the technology for machining plutonium into cores for a nuclear weapon, the unanswered questions about its P-2 centrifuges. Farcically, till mid-January, the Left urged India to heed the Russian and Chinese example. When these two powers decided to support the motion, the defiants urged New Delhi now to follow the example of Cuba, Syria and Venezuela, the real core of NAM in their view (not the majority of eight members including Egypt, Ghana and Sri Lanka who voted along with India).

Another, somewhat peculiar manifestation of the tendency comes from the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). As in the case of Iran, it is about regime change — not that of its head or officials, but of the way India has done nuclear business. For 30 years, the DAE has fought an anti-colonial war against an ever-tightening embargo masterminded by the US. Despite heroic efforts by the

scientists and the country, which poured 40 per cent of the country’s R&D budget for nuclear research, its output has not quite kept up with the self-image and, perhaps more important, ego of its scientists. So poor has been its performance that at a fraction of the investment, the private sector has today installed more wind energy capacity than available for nuclear power. It has signally failed to meet all its targets. If embargoes are to be blamed, you would do well to note that the Department of Space, which, too, faced stringent restrictions has met each and every target — from the sophisticated Insat satellites to the world-class space launch vehicles, the PSLV and the GSLV.

Now when the government has come up with a deal that will enable India to join the global mainstream on nuclear research, as well as obtain a much-needed boost for the stalled domestic programme, the scientists are resisting. The autarkic picture of the Indian nuclear power programme spelt out by its chairman Anil Kakodkar in an interview recently is more in keeping with the era of the closed Indian economy of the Seventies. Today, almost all cutting edge research in nuclear power — whether it be the fusion reactor, or the next generation power reactor — is being done through international, not national, projects. This is the trend in space research, as manifested by the international space station.

Just why strategic defiance strikes any chord in India is baffling. Just what is there to be defiant about? India has had its moments of weakness and insecurity — in 1947 in the wake of Partition, in 1962 after the defeat by China, in 1991 when Punjab was under terrorist attack, when a former PM was assassinated by terrorists and when India’s gold reserves were taken to London to reassure creditors. In 2006, India is on an economic growth track, with abundant forex reserves, as well as nuclear weapons and a disciplined army to guarantee its security. We can only conclude that either we have an innate sense of inferiority and insecurity, or that those that are provoking fears using ghosts of the anti-colonial era, are doing so as part of a cynical act, aimed at shoring their own, rather than the national interest.