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Thursday, 19 August 1999

Spiking Rao to Boost Clinton

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)


US diplomats are prone to asserting that the period of ’zero sum'
solutions between India and Pakistan are now over, and that it 
is no longer true that a concession given to one must be at the 
expense of the other. The difficulty is that there appears to be a 
zero sum situation between the US and India on the nuclear  
issue. 

President Clinton, dogged by the Whitewater scandal and by 
it allegations of inconsistency on Haiti and Bosnia, needs a 
spectacular foreign policy success to wash away the wimpish 
traces in his image. Forcing India and Pakistan to cap their 
nuclear programmes will provide just such a success. Hence the 
frenzied behind-the-scenes diplomacy on the non-proliferation 
issue.

This tacit equation of India with Pakistan ignores the reality 
of the vastly more advanced Indian programme as compared to 
the Pakistani one. While India actually detonated a nuclear  
device twenty years ago, and since then has progressed 
considerably in fabricating delivery systems, Pakistan’s  
programme is as yet a mix of borrowed technology and carefully 
planted stories about that country’s nuclear capability. However,
it suits the US to pretend that Pakistan too is a major player in  
the nuclear league, so that its ’capping’ can be taken as a reason
for India to abandon its own programme. 

The problem with the US formulation is that it ignores the
fact that India is not a country ruled by a military oligarchy but 
a democracy, and that no government that is seen as 
compromising on national security can survive politically. Even 
the Rajiv Gandhi government which came to power in 1984 on
a landslide, got defeated in 1989 amidst allegations that decisions  
involving national security were being taken for venal motives.  

The vice-like grip now taken by the PMO on foreign policy 
means that any bureaucratic dissent with the current PMO drive 
to ’improve' relations with the US will not get publicised. 
However, key officials within the ministry of external affairs 
confirm that in confidential briefings the MEA has warned 
against 'pushing into the background India’s security interests in 
favour of ’better commercial relations with the US'. It is pointed  
out that a country of India’s size needs its own strategic deterrent, 
especially in the context of a volatile geographic environment. 

The MEA’s argument is shared by policy planners in the 
ministry of defence, as well as by the three armed services, who 
are in favour of vigorous development and deployment of the  
missile systems developed by India’s scientists. They point out 
that such a deterrent, which in India’s case has been economically 
developed, will in fact lead to a lowering of defence costs, by 
protecting the security environment more effectively than 
significantly higher·cost traditional weapon systems. These circles 
point to the relatively low investment needed to develop Agni 
further, for example, as compared to the huge outlays needed to 
purchase fighter aircraft from abroad. 

Indeed analysts within the defence establishment claim that 
one reason behind the US obsession with capping India’s space 
and nuclear programmes is to ensure the future development of 
this country as an arms market for the US as large as that offered 
by certain west Asian powers. They claim that arms 
manufacturing companies in the US are concerned that Indian 
R & D will in the next decade lead to this country displacing
western manufacturers in many .third markets, as the Chinese
are already doing. Hence the hidden American pressure to  
throttle the research and development programmes in the defence   
field. 

The problem facing the PMO is that the dominant opinion 
within a key ministry—finance—is in favour of making strategic    
concessions to the US in the expectation of getting commercial 
advantages from that country. However, analysts within the   
Commerce ministry point out that the present US administration, 
faced as it is with joblessness at home,   in no position to give   
economic concessions 'to India, because concessions to one
country will be demanded by several, and the US administration   
cannot be seen as giving preference to outsiders at the expense  
of American industry'. Economic ties between India and the US 
'are dependent on company to company rather than on country
to country links, and these will grow simply because no one can
ignore the emerging Indian market'.

As for the implied strategic prescriptions of the finance
ministry, while its economic effects are debatable, its political
consequences are not. The BJP, groping for an issue after the
fizzling-out of the communal atmospherics of the Babri Masjid
agitation period, will get a free ride on the horse of national
security should India abandon the Agni programme and halt the
deployment of Prithvi.

The dilemma facing the Prime Minister is that national
security is one of the three planks holding together the Congress
party’s effective electoral platform, the second being the party’s
non-denominational approach to regions and communities, and
the third the ability to provide a stable government without 
falling apart midway. Thus there exists a clear contradiction
between the political interests of President Clinton and the
political survival of P. V. Narasimha Rao. No prizes for guessing 
which option the PM is likely to exercise in Washington. 

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