It must have been a case of trying too hard, because the international conference organized by India — or shall we say, the Congress party — on nuclear disarmament this week petered off so tamely. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was commandeered to deliver the inaugural and vice-president Hamid Ansari the valedictory address, but between the lines, the message was rather simple: This was Rajiv Gandhi’s idea 20 years ago, and that is why we are here today.
And therein lies the rub. The Congress party clearly wants some of the credit that has widely accrued to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which took India across the nuclear threshold 10 years ago. Since it cannot rewrite history, the Congress thought it could do the next best thing. Get the ministry of external affairs (MEA) to invite nuclearwallahs from all over the world to discuss Rajiv Gandhi’s plan, sending the message that it was the Congress which had first thought of it. Clearly, it must be the heat that’s done this to the Congress, the heat of the several forthcoming elections and the depression generated by losing Karnataka. (It seems the Congress working committee meeting actually discussed the issue for four hours.)
On the inaugural day of the conference, there was no one from the BJP in the audience. Turned out later that an invitation had been sent to Jagmohan, minister for urban development during the NDA government, in his capacity as a member of the Indian Council for World Affairs (an autonomous body under the MEA and a co-organizer of the event), just as invitations had been sent to everyone on the ICWA’s board. Neither Jagmohan nor anyone else from the BJP showed up. Either they hadn’t bothered, or the Congress/MEA/ICWA hadn’t pursued their invitees. What a strange and empty thought that was! To hold a wedding party, call guests from all over the world and serve great food (at the Maurya hotel), but you know what, umm, we don’t know if the bridegroom’s coming or not. Problem with the Congress is that it doesn’t have the large-heartedness or the grace to allow someone else the credit for something that accrues to the national interest. The nuclear tests may have been conducted by the BJP, but it is India to which the credit goes.
In fact, the Congress could have well turned the occasion into a national celebration by inviting senior BJP leaders like L. K. Advani to talk about the Pokhran experience. Imagine the publicity that would get the Congress! The party could rightfully point out, as India’s foremost strategic thinker K. Subrahmanyam has done so often before, that the BJP was only able to carry out the tests at Pokhran because Rajiv Gandhi had ordered India’s scientists to start work in earnest on the nuclear programme in 1989.
Meanwhile, the message sent to the international community — if both Advani and Manmohan Singh spoke from the same podium — would have been so stronger. Here was India, speaking with one voice and from a position of (nuclear) strength, in favour of abolition of nuclear weapons.
Unfortunately, the reality was much more confused. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invoked the Rajiv Gandhi plan, but he must have had the Indo-US nuclear deal in mind when he spoke about India not having the luxury of limiting its energy options. Meanwhile, minister for panchayati raj Mani Shankar Aiyar, who had helped Rajiv Gandhi draft his action plan, told the audience that, according to him, India should not have gone nuclear in the first place.
So how did one disassemble this messy potpourri? Here was the Prime Minister, who clearly continues to believe that the nuclear deal is good for India, except that everyone also knows that such a deal with the US would have remained an early morning dream if the BJP had not exploded the bomb 10 years ago. So while the Congress may desperately want the deal, they’re unwilling to bite the Left bullet. As usual, K. Subrahmanyam had an answer. He pointed out that it didn’t matter if the BJP and the Congress agreed or not over sharing credit, the important thing was to get on with it. Now that India had gone nuclear, he said, the key thing was how to leverage strength in favour of marshalling our several traditions of non-violence.
Subrahmanyam pointed out that the much-vaunted op-ed article by Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, George Shultz and William Perry in the Wall Street Journal recently, in which they talked about a nuclear weapons-free world, was actually an inadequate and incomplete thought. The point was that the big powers must be persuaded to look at the concept of power in different ways, Subrahmanyam said, and that India must take the lead in doing so.
The realist in Subrahmanyam didn’t need to add that at least in our lifetimes this seemed like a pipe dream. But if, as he implied, India led the abolition campaign—didn’t matter which political party took the credit—then India would have to be part of any international conference/seminar/thought process that involved nuclear non-proliferation as well as disarmament. At least for the next 50 years, if we played this right, India’s strategic guru seemed to be saying, no one would be able to sideline India on this score.
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and writes on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics every week. Comments are welcome at email@example.com