Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Fizzle and Fuzzy Logic

Crossposted from Pragoti .

A rather unseemly debate is underway publicly over claims made by a senior member, K.Santhanam of the Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) that the results of the thermonuclear test in 1998 were a "fizzle". K.Santhanam's claims suggest that the estimated TNT output of 43 KT, made by the Bhaba Atomic Research Centre, which monitored the blasts (alongwith the DRDO) and whose findings were asserted by then Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Chairman R. Chidambaram, was an overestimation. K.Santhanam's claims have come 11 years since the blasts and the reason attributed for the delay is that being a public servant, it was not possible for him to com out in the open with the negation of the official results.
The 1998 nuclear blasts during the BJP led NDA regime featured a series of tests - two on a high and low yield fission bombs and one "thermonuclear" fission-fusion bomb - the hydrogen bomb. The thermonuclear test was the showpiece of the nuclear blasts, which immediately preceded a retaliatory sequence of tests by neighbouring Pakistan (which were suggested to have low TNT yields themselves).
Right after the tests, the claims of high yield made by the AEC and the Indian defence establishment were questioned by independent sources including seismologists, nuclear physicists and weapon experts. As this article by Praful Bidwai suggests, the claims were suspect right after they were made and independent sources affirmed that the yield was overestimated based on seismological data.
K.Santhanam's article co-written with former bureaucrat Ashok Parthasarathy in The Hindu, made even more startling revelations - suggesting that the decision to uphold the yield estimates of BARC after the tests was made by a "voice-vote". The article also produced a point-by-point rebuttal of R.Chidambaram's assertions that the yield estimates were accurate and that the thermonuclear test was a success.
The Frontline's science correspondent R.Ramachandran's article in The Hindu then went to explicate the veracity of the BARC and former AEC Chairman's claims. The important suggestion in this article was that the on-site radioactive test following the nuclear blasts at the test-site revealed the presence of radioisotopes, which was most probably the products of high-energy neutrons produced by fusion reactions and hence the veracity of the claim.
Technical evaluation of the claims and counter-claims aside - what is relevant is the rationale for the statements made by K.Santhanam and other detractors of the thermonuclear test (including other nuclear scientists and ex-mandarins, Homi Sethna, PK Iyengar and others). The detractors suggest that the failure of the thermonuclear test necessitated a further round of testing and that this was needed because a fusion bomb was to be the core of a credible minimum deterrent (CMD), fitting in with India's nuclear doctrine. Rebuttals of this suggestion immediately followed by defense analyst K.Subrahmanyam (in the Indian Express for e.g.) who argued that there was no need for a thermonuclear component in the CMD and that fission bombs would do the needful .
In essence what flows from the arguments of both the detractors of the 1998 thermonuclear test- many of whom opposed the Indo-Nuclear Deal from a standpoint that the deal curtailed the weaponisation programme and the proponents of the success theory (or even so called neutral observers who oppose the need for a further test) is a common understanding of the need for a nuclear weapon oriented defence doctrine. That much is clear.
The former argue for a even "greater" deterrent - witness the claims made by K.Santhanam that the absence of a thermonuclear bomb creates a gap between India and its "great power rival" - China; thereby bringing in the "China bogey" into the nuclear "game" - something that was ludicrously tangled as a reason for the 1998 tests by then defence minister George Fernandes. In essence, the logic behind the claims made by K.Santhanam is that the minimum in the CMD is not enough and only the presence of a thermonuclear bomb would help attain that status and this is justified when the gap between India and China in their respective "nuclear arsenals" are considered.
Can there be an even more Strangelovian argument? First of all, the nuclear doctrine in China was never focussed toward India, but toward the US and the USSR - a legacy of the Cold War and the Sino-Soviet split. That the difference in the arsenals is thrust as an argument to justify a stronger deterrent makes that argument only even more self-serving is clear - as such a strategy would entail that the Indian defensive deterrent is directed at China's capabilities and therefore that would mean that China could now claim that its arsenal is necessitated due to India's doctrine. What can be more ridiculous than this?
It however needs to be mentioned that the rejection of a greater deterrent argument does not mean that there should be a retention of the status quo vis-a-vis the nuclear arsenals of India and China; but that normatively there needs to be a stronger impulse toward a nuclear disarmament regime that targets vertical proliferation among the Nuclear Five and a binding commitment among them to disarm.
Which takes us to the argument about India's nuclear doctrine itself. The very opaque nature of the Indian nuclear lobby's functioning (or in essence the defence establishment's) suggests that the presence of destructive weapons of the nuclear variety in the subcontinent is latent with terrible danger. The argument for a "minimal deterrent" is poor because the presence of nuclear weapons has never deterred a conflict (Kargil for e.g.) or war like confrontation leading to the brink of danger. The infighting among the sections of the nuclear lobby coupled with the strategic community's high stakes "great power game", creates a situation where neighbouring countries would only want to react in a similar Tandava nritya to establish nuclear parity. Indeed, the "nuclear doctrine" as established now is an untenable one for the security and peace of the subcontinent.
What would be a more credible, moral and ethical imperative would be the complete disarmament in both India and Pakistan and there is no better time for the same than the present. There is a commonality of interests in both these states (and definitely among the societies) to eradicate extremism. That the nuclear defense doctrine in India is predicated on the assumption that there could be a extremist takeover of the nuclear establishment in Pakistan suggests that the eradication of extremism is of the highest priority. If this commonality of interests could also translate into an understanding on eradicating the nuclear threat perceptions through disarmament, that would mark a logical culmination - also a very instrumental one because it will cut down the expenditure burden of these third world developing countries.
But would the "realism" driven strategic establishments in both these countries even work toward such a culmination? That would mean that these establishment would have to rethink the entire paradigm of their defense/IR strategies. It would mean that these establishments would have to think beyond a paradigm that suggests an intrinsically given clash of power interests, rather than the true fact that the rivalry is an dependent variable wrought through the interests of ideologically driven sections in both the respective nations.
To explain this further- consider that in 1998, the BJP government ordered nuclear testing, immediately after it came to power. The rationale offered, by then defence minister George Fernandes was that the test were necessitated because of hostile neighbours, both of whom had committed aggression against India (in a leaked out letter to the US president Bill Clinton). What is worth noting is that the BJP included the nuclear option in its election manifesto not because of these "defensive" reasons, but because the nuclear option was always in its ideological firmament - as early as the early 1950s, the BJP's precursor, the Jan Sangh had demanded the development of nuclear weapons!.
Similarly, Pokharan-1, which featured the first successful nuclear weapon testing by India, was done during the Indira Gandhi regime, who justified the same as necessitated against China; coming only a decade after the border war between the nations. As a domino effect, Pakistan immediately embarked upon nuclear weaponisation and proliferation processes through largely covert means (the dreaded AQ Khan network);these were themselves facilitated by a pliant imperial regime run by Ronald Reagan as is depicted by the excellent book, "Deception: Pakistan, the United States and the global nuclear weapons conspiracy".
In other words, far from being just a result of power games intrinsic to the anarchic international order, the nuclear weaponisation (and proliferation) syndrome was effected due to ideological impetuses from ruling establishments, buttressed by an ineffectual and incompetent non-proliferation regime.
What this article therefore calls for, is a doing away with a few things - the power based IR strategic thinking and therefore the nuclear defense doctrine and therefore nuclear weapons itself. That, as the cliche goes, makes the world far better.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Breaking from the past

Unprecedented turnout of voters effect landmark change in general elections in Japan.

In what must be a major landmark in Japanese politics, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) which has governed Japan for more than five decades barring a very short interruption in the 1990s, was defeated comprehensively in the elections to the lower house of the Diet held on August 30th. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) managed to win 308 out of the 480 seats and formed the government with other smaller allies, the Social Democratic Party and the People's New Party of Japan. The mandate fuelled by a strong 69% voter turnout was a decisive rejection of the LDP - a party whose "machine" was built through years of collaboration between big business, the bureaucracy and adherence to the politics of patronage to effect a large coalition of support.

Despite its highly developed status, Japan has suffered a multitude of social problems over the years - that of rising unemployment (nearly 6% recently), an ageing population, poor birth indicators apart from nearly two decades of stagnant growth and drop in living standards, not to mention the huge impact of the recent global economic crisis on the highly export dependent Japanese economy. These structural conditions and the LDP's refusal to initiate any change in its ways of rule and continuation of the political and administrative status quo saw an unprecedented rise in its unpopularity, expressed in its defeat in the elections. Ideologically, there is little differentiation between these two parties as both are in the centre-right of the ideological spectrum, but there is a difference in their programmatic essences.

The DPJ while reiterating its belief in the "free market system" has pledged to take up the interests of consumers, small enterprises and non-profit organisations, as a contrast to the overtly strong relations between the LDP and the big export businesses in the country. What stuck a chord with the the voting public was the DPJ's avowed insistence on reforming the powerful bureaucracy in the country in a manner that it is responsive to the democratically elected polity and not vice-versa as is the status quo. Indeed, after forming the government on September 16th, the DPJ leader and new prime minister Yukio Hatoyama named a cabinet minister in charge of a new National Strategy Bureau. The bureau would now oversee a centralised policy planning and execution apparatus that would be in stark contrast to the past, wherein the bureaucracy drafted plans for various ministries, while ministers and legislators catered to special interest groups using lobbying or behind-the-doors deals. The DPJ received a positive mandate after being contrasted with a LDP government (and party) which had been plagued with a series of corruption scandals and a reputation of fostering an opaque environment of functioning involving legislators, bureaucrats and industry groups.

The LDP's traditional policies of building and maintaining a large support base through patronage and high spending infrastructure projects also wore out its course, as much of it was seen as wasteful spending helping special interest lobbies. Anger at the LDP was also directed because of the increased informalisation of employment (the LDP governments since 2005 had encouraged contractualisation of work) and the increased lay-offs of contracted workers primarily because of the global economic crisis. The DPJ put its emphasis on social security, on child support, consumer welfare and boosting internal demand in its manifesto, which was seen as a break from the patronage based offerings of the Taro Aso led LDP. The DPJ also drew a contrast from the LDP in its foreign policy outlook arguing for more nuanced external relationships - renegotiating the Status of Forces agreement with the US, closer ties with other countries like China in Asia. In comparison, the Junichiro Koizumi/ Taro Aso led LDP regimes since 2005 only got Japan much closer to the US, by taking part in the "War on Terror" through non-lethal military assistance and also pledging cooperation in security initiatives in the Indian Ocean.

The encouraging aspect of the 2009 elections was the high degree of participation resulting in the landslide defeat of the LDP. In a nation, where politics has often take a backseat in the consciousness of a highly networked populace in the industrialised nation, the sudden burst of enthusiasm to defeat the status quo marks a good beginning for greater participation in the political and civil society. It is also an encouraging sign for ideologically driven parties wishing to transform Japan into a far more egalitarian, pacifist and post-industrialist nation. In many senses, the defeat of the LDP has initiated a truly two party system in the single party dominated nation state since World War II. The DPJ's success in implementing some of its policies that are seen as sharp contrasts to the LDP will ultimately determine the stability of this system and by all accounts it is going to be a challenging time for the Hatoyama led government. Manipulating an all-powerful bureaucracy without alienating it, jump starting a two decade long stagnant economy and to address the onerous social issues in the nation - these will require herculean efforts.

Draft of an editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

Sunday, September 06, 2009

A Confident Congress

A default victory for the Congress is likely in upcoming assembly elections in Haryana

The Congress party's convincing victory in the Lok Sabha elections where it won 9 out of the 10 constituencies in the state has emboldened its state government to recommend dissolution of the assembly and call for fresh elections seven months before its scheduled completion of five years. The Congress led by chief minister Bhoopinder Singh Hooda hopes to repeat its Lok Sabha performance in the assembly elections, buoyed as it is by the scale of victory that the party achieved bucking a trend that has punished incumbent state governments before in the parliamentary elections. And the manner in which the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) - Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) managed to lose the elections resulted in the breakdown of the alliance, thereby strengthening the prospects of the Congress even more - atleast on paper.

The victory of the Congress in 2004 had much to do with voter disenchantment with the INLD rule under former chief minister Om Prakash Chautala who was seen to be overweening and tolerant to corruption, criminalisation and authoritarianism. Since then, under the leadership of Hooda, the Congress has only consolidated its support base as opposition to the party has been in disarray. After a period of dissension within the Congress with the choice of Hooda as chief minister, the party gradually steadied itself, after dissidents left the party and formed the Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC). The HJC managed a decent vote share in the Lok Sabha elections and would try again to play spoiler to the Congress' hopes in the assembly elections.

The support base of the Congress had been augmented during the Lok Sabha elections due to a deliberate strategy to woo Jat voters- Jats consititute nearly a quarter of Haryana's population - by the party. The presence of a Jat in Hooda as the chief minister helped and the conscious wooing of the Jats helped break the "monopoly" of the INLD over this community, affecting the party's fortunes dramatically. Bhupinder Singh Hooda is now seen as the undoubted leader of the Jat community in the state. Consequent to the increase in support among the Jats has been a perceptible shift of support from the Congress' traditional voter base among the poorer sections - particularly the dalits. A section of the dalits preferred the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the Lok Sabha elections and the party would want to convert that support into seats in the assembly elections.

The lack of credible opposition to the Congress is evident in the political positions of the various parties. Haryana is reeling under a drought which has affected the peasantry and many incidents of industrial unrest has taken place sporadically during the Congress rule. Yet, the opposition to the Congress has been limited in its efforts to take up these causes and has instead focussed on personalised campaigns - a characteristic of family and personality dominated politics in the state. Sectional and caste preferences still determine support to the opposition parties - the BJP for e.g. relies heavily on the Punjabi speaking populace for support; the INLD is still an out-and-out Jat party while the HJC derives a lot of support from the Bishnois. The manner in which the Congress has managed to accommodate various sectional interests has kept it in good stead against this fragmented and disjointed opposition. The Congress has played to the gallery of these sections by refusing to take on regressive traditional systems prevalent for example in the Jat community such as the institution of khap panchayats. The absence of a better alternative to the Congress has meant that many poorer and marginalised sections of Haryana's population have kept their faith with the Congress, even if its government has not done enough for them. Adding to the Congress' advantage is the breaking down of the BJP-INLD alliance and therefore an even more fragmented opposition.

The Congress government in Haryana has been unlike other "successful" ones - in Andhra Pradesh for example, where a slew of pro-poor and populist measures were helpful in retaining power. In all likelihood, the Congress can be expected to retain its majority in Haryana in the assembly elections. Yet, that would be due to default and not because of any major achievements on its government's part in a state that still enjoys rather a dubious reputation of retarded social development.

Draft of an editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly