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A collective death wish fulfilled?

by Jawed Naqvi, 17 March 2011

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Dawn, 17 March 2011

When the 9.0 intensity earthquake rocked my room at Tokyo’s double-storey International House on Friday, I passed it for one of the routine tremors the Japanese hosts had briefed their Indian guests about.

Before I could find my phone-camera to record the dramatic swaying of the potted oriental lilies, a counterpoint to the violent rattling of the windowpanes, the rumbling was over. I had kept my calm, but it was out of ignorance, not any deep insight into the shaping disaster.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Tokyo’s Governor Shintaro Ishihara should not be allowed the luxury of that ignorance. Dr Singh controversially staked his parliamentary majority to push India towards a promised nuclear energy regime. His plan comprises scores of atomic units straddling the far corners of the country. The 78-year old Japanese politician has controversially canvassed for nuclear armament of his island-nation as a foil to China’s military prowess.

There is a notable difference between the two. Mr Ishihara has won three consecutive terms as head of the Tokyo administration and is something of an icon of Japan’s nationalist right. Dr Singh has never won a seat in the Lok Sabha and has refrained from contesting for it since he became prime minister in May 2004, choosing instead to remain a member of the Rajya Sabha, that too by declaring himself a resident of Assam, which he is not.

Both nuclear lobbyists have sought to manipulate public opinion without a transparent discussion about the dangers of their respective agendas. Dr Singh manufactured a crucial vote when his party did not have the needed support in parliament for his adventurous mission. He discarded his left allies for opposing the American-backed nuclear bill and wooed small parties and independent MPs to fetch him a majority involving rumoured quid pro quos.

The Lok Sabha that day witnessed ugly scenes of currency notes offloaded from gunny bags, which opposition MPs claimed were given by the government’s representatives to win support for the prime minister’s single-minded mission.

Dr Singh had to meet a deadline set by the American government. Fresh WikiLeaks revelations of US diplomatic cables indicate how in several palpable ways Dr Singh may have taken his cue from Washington. The removal of pro-Iran gas pipeline minister Mani Shankar Aiyar is now known to have been carried out to please his American patrons. The manufactured vote on the nuclear energy agenda may have had similar foreign considerations.

Mr Ishihara wants to divert nuclear energy into a military regime. In fact, it may not have been without huge irony that the earthquake struck Japan on March 11, the day Mr Ishihara ended the suspense over his candidature for a fourth consecutive term. If he now wins the April 10 election against a pacifist challenger on a platform of nuclear armament, it would not be wrong to construe the mandate as a collective death wish.

Mercifully, in spite of his dubious popularity as Tokyo’s governor, Mr Ishihara is in no position to transform (or bribe) the nation, which is constitutionally bound to desist from a militarised path. He cannot impose his nuclear agenda on the Japanese Diet, not yet. In fact, the one positive offshoot of Japan’s current nightmare could be the suspension of debate for the foreseeable future, no matter how mindless and remote the idea is, to build nuclear weapons.

The tsunami havoc and the atomic catastrophe it triggered in Japan has not lessened Dr Singh’s zeal to persist with his mission to tether India’s future to nuclear power. In fact, the prime minister told parliament this week a familiar half-truth: the existing nuclear units were safe and a fresh safety review would be carried out to further reassure the nation that India was invincible to a Japan-like disaster.

It was a misleading assertion not the least because it could not have been an improvement on the confidence the Japanese government had in their multi-layered safety when that country hitched its future to nuclear power. Japan has 18 nuclear power plants, which together house a total of 54 reactors. These plants generate 29 per cent of the country’s electricity. The troubled Fukushima-Daiichi unit is one of the 25 biggest nuclear power stations in the world and contains six reactors.

Japan’s tragedy is poignant because it genuinely believed in the safety of nuclear power while shunning its military use. This cannot be said of India or Pakistan. Both seem happy to flaunt their nuclear biceps and, as is the logic of nuclear weapons, not without being also prepared to sacrifice millions of unsuspecting lives. As a matter of fact, the accident which occurred in Japan was foisted by nature on a non-militarist state that had overlooked the danger of still playing with nature.

The presence of nuclear weapons in South Asia (and leaders who are willing to use them) to shore up facile national honour makes the region inevitably more prone to accidents, a more cavalier variant of the miscalculation that occurred in Fukushima.

Admitting to the Indian parliament that he had wrongly appointed a tainted official as head of the country’s anti-corruption watchdog, Dr Singh said recently that he had made an error in judgment. Can he guarantee that he won’t slip up with even more disastrous consequences if faced with computer-generated false warning of a missile heading towards any of the vulnerable Indian cities? India and Pakistan, or for that matter India and China, do not have the lead-time that the US and the Soviet Union were able to use to avert near fatal mistakes.

In a fit of evidently senile anger, which he later regretted, Mr Ishihara described Friday’s tsunami havoc as divine retribution for the ‘greed’ of his countrymen, a euphemism for doing brisk business with China instead of confronting it militarily. Dr Singh is phlegmatic in comparison. Yet he is no different from the fellow nuclear lobbyist of Tokyo as both pursue a collective death wish without a fair and informed mandate from their people endorsing the hazardous pursuits, be it as a means to uncertain economic prosperity or as an unconscionable military mantra.

Friday’s tsunami was proof that nature does yield to our collective death wish if we want it badly enough.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.