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Jingoist Electioneering Prevails 21 Years After India’s Nuclear Tests
May 11th marked 21 years since the India nuclear tests conducted in 1998 in Pokharan, a place conveniently referred to as ”desert” so that communities in the neighbouring villages who continue to face the impacts are rendered invisible.
On the occasion, Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted two tweets on his personal timeline (here and here), referring to the anniversary as “National Technology Day”, highlighting the significance of “the power of technology for national progress”. Promoting secretive nuclear technology accrues no spin-offs for larger progress, as development of n-bombs by even a backward country like North Korea confirms. Meanwhile, India has fallen behind in technologies such as solar energy, affordable medicines and sustainable agriculture. Contrary to the rhetoric, the Modi government has affected historical cuts in funding for scientific research, inviting fierce protests from scientists.
While the PM studiously avoided any reference to nuclear weapons on the occasion, perhaps taking cues from the reservations expressed by the international media as well as senior diplomats following his casual bravado on nuclear weapons earlier this election season, the day ended with Narendra Modi inviting sarcastic memes and condemnations for a televised interview in which he bragged about his personal expertise in the air strikes against Pakistan.
Nuclear rhetoric in election season
The election season in India was inaugurated this year with jingoist frenzy whipped up by the Narendra Modi government and ruling Bharatiya Janata Paty (BJP), claiming air strikes inside the Pakistan border as a pro-active punitive measure against the terrorist attack in Pulwama that killed 40 Indian soldiers. Although the party’s heroic claims soon proved questionable, and Pakistan gained merit by releasing the captured Indian pilot, the PM has continued with his “we will enter your homes and hit you” pitch in his election rallies.
Such amplified machismo used for electoral calculations is unprecedented in the country’s domestic politics. While BJP leaders in New Delhi have been campaigning dressed in military fatigues, some senior functionaries of the party have openly claimed that the surgical strike against Pakistan will mean a sharp increase in their electoral fortunes. Even after the victorious wars against Pakistan in 1971 or 1965, India did not see such brazen attempts by the government to politicise national security. The ‘New India’ under Modi has a clearly aggressive pitch attuned to reap electoral benefits.
Creating this nationalist fervour is in line with the larger political narrative supported by the ruling BJP, portraying itself as the sole protector of India’s national security and dignity. In 2015, the party’s President, Amit Shah claimed during the Bihar state election that if BJP were to lose, celebratory firecrackers would be burst in Pakistan. When it comes to India-Pakistan nuclear equations, the security pundits conveniently underplay the fact that domestic politics impacts nuclear and bilaterial equations more than the strategic calculations and mythical deterrence balance. In fact, despite the fact that the relationship with both Pakistan and China had actually stabilised steadily since the early 1990s, India conducted nuclear tests in 1998 precisely because the Hindu-supermacist BJP assumed power and it had to assert itself as the sole repository of Indian nationalism.
These realities notwithstanding, a longer-term view will suggest that even though Modi and Hindu nationalist BJP have deployed nuclear and militarist rhetoric in elections before, they have actually been more measured in their elections when in power. In the previous elections, Modi promised a revision of India’s No-First-Use policy on nuclear weapons and the Credible Minimum Doctrine, yet he did not implement these in his 5-year tenure. During the Gujarat state elections, Modi accused the former PM of colluding with Pakistan along with India’s retired army chief, a statement that his government later retracted in the parliament. Thus, while the ultra-nationalists restrain their belligerent rhetoric to political theatrics, the supposedly liberal Congress party currently in opposition did not shy away from indulging in competitive jingoism, with the former PM Manmohan Singh making claims of similar surgical strikes during his regime being conducted sans BJP-style electoral bravado.
This author had suggested in an earlier article that there appears to be a national consensus in India, shared by at least the two major coalitions, to adopt a moderate posture in practice, in order to be counted among the “responsible” nuclear powers, while dangerously ramping up the country’s nuclear and military capabilities. Does this election season reflect something different and deeper? Should the concerned Indian citizens and the world at large take the heightened nuclear rhetoric as just a part of the routine but frenzied roller-coaster that the planet’s largest elections in India have become?
Reality beyond elections
There are two serious issues that emanate specifically from the current spurt of nuclear and jingoist fervor at this juncture, which calls for closer attention and wider concern:
First, the unprecedented belligerence of India’s ruling establishment reflects an unstated doctrinal shift that the country’s right-wing political lobbies and militarist hawks have long been hankering for. Since the 1998 nuclear tests, India had adopted a policy of strategic restraint vis-à-vis border conflicts and had chosen not to take the offensive across the ‘Line of Control’ – even at the height of the Kargil conflict in 1999. While this posture had earned rich diplomatic dividends for India, a section of the hawkish security pundits have long held that this self-imposed restraint is harmful to India’s perceived national interests. Over the last two decades, nuclear-armed India has seen a steady rise of this strategic and policy enclave, consisting of retired military generals and diplomats, security think tanks modeled after and often run in active collaboration with American and Israel-styled strategic institutions, and a nationalist mediascape eager to outsource the security and foreign policy expertise to these quarters. With the steep rise in Foreign Direct Investment in India’s defense sector, such think tanks are likely to have more influence over the public discourse on nuclear issues. The three largest such think tanks, backed by the government, corporate sector and the Hindu nationalist right-wing political establishment respectively, have rendered the entire strategic discourse overwhelmingly hawkish. Much like their Western counterparts, these think tanks are almost exclusively elite bastions – comprised, it seems, of upper caste Hindu males. A thorough ethnographic study of India’s contemporary strategic culture is yet to be done. Notably, all three of these institutions have a remarkably obliging revolving-door entry practice for these policy elite.
Ajit Doval, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s National Security Advisor (NSA) – an American-style office set up after India acquired nuclear weapons, is the retired chief of the government’s key intelligence agency – the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and has headed the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) in New Delhi, which was set up by the leaders of India’s largest Hindu-majoritarian platform, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is also the ideological parent organization of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Currently, the VIF is headed by a retired diplomat who earlier headed the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) that comes under the aegis of India’s Ministry of Defence. With urban myths surrounding Doval, such as him being India’s own, home-grown James Bond, India’s NSA has been credited for India’s offensive security policy not only against Pakistan, but also in bringing the popular insurgency in Kashmir to its heels, ever since Modi came to power.
Besides these two think tanks, there is the Observer Research Foundation, backed by the monopolistic Reliance Industries. It has a major stake in India’s defence sector which was opened up by the Modi government for private players and international manufacturers of military hardware. The Observer Research Foundation has also been actively rooting for an end to strategic restraint, celebrating the ‘surgical strike’ across the border, and arguing that the presence of nuclear arsenals in the subcontinent should not deter India from engaging in military escalation. Hence, the current pre-election escalation is part of a larger and worrying pattern of India’s gradual move towards offensive doctrines like ‘cold start’ which seek to normalize aggression under the shadow of nuclear weapons.
The general decline in nuclear restraint under US President Donald Trump—, as reflected in his contempt for bilateral and multilateral treaties, the normalization of nuclear war and the undeniable crisis within the NPT-based global nuclear order—has also allowed countries like India to resort to self-protective nationalist rhetoric at the international stage.
With this crucial strategic shift on the part of the Indian establishment, South Asia has become the only region in the world where at least one of the two nuclear-armed neighbours, with a history of active border conflict, has openly asserted its faith in winnable wars. While this belligerence has made Pakistan look more sober in comparison, especially with its Prime Minister calling for an end to hostilities, this does not ensure a guaranteed peace in the region. Both India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear and military capabilities have grown immensely over the past two decades. Last year, after flagging off India’s nuclear submarine Arihant, which completed the country’s nuclear triad, Prime Minister Modi made provocative statements against Pakistan. On average, India and Pakistan have flight-tested at least one nuclear-capable missile every year since 1998, and both countries have been among the world’s top weapons importers over the past two decades.
The second major concern about the rising jingoism, which has ominous portents for India (the world’s largest democracy), is that the growing militarist polarization is based on a notable villainizing of any dissenting voice that questions the current course of action. While the government and the ruling party have openly questioned the patriotism of their political opponents, independent voices in journalism, academia, and civil society are facing ugly vilification campaigns and open threats. Self-styled online ‘traitor trackers’ have profiled citizens questioning the government and have led concerted and targeted attacks on their reputations and jobs. While key members of social media groups like ‘Clean the Nation’— that have openly called for attacks against ‘anti-nationals’—are unashamedly followed by the Prime Minister on social media, the party’s senior leaders have been fanning the fire by trending hashtags like #GaddarList (traitor’s list) to target dissenting voices. Tweets by BJP leaders like Arvind Limbavali have called for another 5 years for the Modi government for “eliminating the internal enemies of the nation”. In the past 5 years of the Modi regime, numerous civil society activists, secular voices and intellectuals raising questions have been either maligned and jailed by the government, or killed by right-wing gangs with impunity. International human rights organizations such as Amnesty International (India) have faced brutal crackdown while India has also faced criticism for an unprecedented rise in attacks against journalists. This targeting of political opponents also has an unmistakable religious angle to it. The Muslim community in India is under siege while incidents of their mob-lynching based on malicious rumors have become commonplace. Their allegiance to India is clearly put under question when the Prime Minister claims that the previous governments were ‘soft’ on Pakistan because they were after the domestic ‘Muslim vote bank’. Since Modi assumed power, religious minorities and dissenting voices have faced violent attacks by the right-wing machinery that is steadily growing in power and influence under the RSS with its hydra-shaped infiltration within society, including some openly violent off-shoots. Most recently, the UN human rights Chief has warned India against marginalization of minorities and divisive politics.
Thus, what we are witnessing in India today is the normalization of nuclear and war rhetoric and its purposefully religiously-charged packaging, deployed to push an ultra-nationalist narrative and discredit political opposition and civil society. While concerned disarmament groups have been cautioning that a nuclear exchange in South Asia might put over two billion people at risk and cause widespread harm to all living beings and the environment, the current atmosphere makes the scenario much more precarious. Unsurprisingly, after a gap of 17 years, India has appeared consecutively in the past three Doomsday Clock annual statements, which now stands closest ever to midnight.
Although the US and other Western powers would like us to believe that North Korea and Iran are the world’s biggest nuclear threats, the real and escalating tension in South Asia between two nuclear-armed neighbours—India and Pakistan—should be of far greater concern. Not only does the nuclear tension in the world’s most densely populated region imperil the lives of more than two billion people, but any nuclear exchange will lead to irreversible and global climatic consequences. Will we care to heed the serious warnings in time?