It started, absurdly, because our mothers are friends. They are both writers-his in India, mine in Montreal-and they have been working on a book together for years. I met his mom when she came to visit us in Quebec, and when I went to India, I stayed with her in Kerala.
While I was there, her son, Professor Madhav Das Nalapat, would call for her, and sometimes we would chat. He was a senior editor at the Times of India and I was a journalist. I should write for him, he would say.
The calls followed me after I went home. He would tell me his news, telegraphed in tight sentences. He was in the Middle East, talking to the emirs. He was in China, talking to the generals. He was in Washington, talking to the Heritage Foundation. As he spoke, the shadow world of geopolitics, a mirage of unknown and unnamed players, formed in my mind. I would glimpse vague patterns, blurry outlines, and then, before any real questions could be asked, the Professor would cheerfully ring off and I would be left wondering. How did he know that? Who was he?
No one seemed to know. Even his mother had been vague, resorting to resurrecting stories from his school days if she wanted to offer anything specific. My family was an incubator of rumours. I knew that in India he was controversial-there had been half a dozen attempts on his life.
Months could pass without hearing from him, then calls would come in a cluster. Sometimes he would drop biographical clues: He had been a Maoist guerilla, thrown in jail because he opposed Indira Gandhi's 1975 declaration of a state of emergency, which had suspended civil rights. He had left the Times. He had been appointed a UNESCO Peace Chair. He was head of the geopolitics department of an elite Indian university. He was chairman of the Institute for Security & Enterprise.
I did an Internet search for the Institute for Security & Enterprise. Nothing. But in the case of the Professor, it didn't mean it didn't exist-it meant it was too real.
If I had my doubts about him, they were annihilated on September 11, 2001. The previous May, he had called from Washington, where he had spent the month trying to convince officials of an imminent attack, based on information he had received from Afghan contacts. He was dismissed. He went back in early September to give it another try. He called me from New York soon after the planes hit the towers. I hope I never hear such despair again.
When airplanes finally started flying again, the first place he went was China. He called me from there too. He had annoyed the authorities by giving a speech at the Beijing Foreign Correspondents Club that singled out Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as the two top terror-backing states.
I still had no idea whom I was dealing with. This Indian fusion of Cassandra, Machiavelli and James Bond had decided to put me on speed dial. My personal Deep Throat, he'd phone me and all I could do was listen, fascinated, flattered, horrified. Then he would hang up and I'd get back to writing my fluff piece on spas in rural Ontario.
Sometimes I'd follow him through the news. While the front pages were mesmerized by the military and economic behemoth that is China, the Professor and his friends were manoeuvring India through the back pages and into a whole new game. He called as he engineered a fresh phase of Israel-
India relations. Thanks to his nudging, in the last ten years the two countries have gone from practically no official contact to Israel being the second largest defence supplier to India (after Russia). His university hosted the first ever India-Israel-United States security summit.
He invited me to attend. I said I was busy. Finally, inevitably, my curiosity won out over my fear. On a press trip to Qatar, I arranged for a side jaunt to meet him in Kuwait. At the last minute, he cancelled. And that was that, for a while.
This went on for years, and still we never met. One day, the phone rang and it was the Professor. He was coming for a visit. Would I pick him up from the bus stop in Montreal? Yes, I would.
I didn't expect someone so warm, so charming, so gracious. I brought him back to Point St. Charles, where, over bland sandwiches, he talked about the jihadis; about his 1983 proposal for a trilateral security alliance consisting of the Soviet Union, China and India; about his politics. He wasn't a member of any party. He was an Indian nationalist, but not a Hindu nationalist. He had published a book about his philosophy of Indutva (every Indian is a compound of the Western, the Mughal/Muslim and the Vedic/Hindu), a counterpoise to the Hindu right wing's Hindutva (everybody should be a Hindu). In his view, all Indians are composites and therefore should live in peace.
His world-that hazy mirage of policy, geopolitics and power-was coming into clearer focus. I could see its edges. It was a brutal, rough place, with few heroes, and many Swiss bank accounts. He didn't tell me anything I couldn't have ferreted out on my own (if I had known where to look). When he once again invited me to join him, this time in Taiwan, I decided to go. I was going to be in the area anyway, looking at spas.
The Professor's delegation to Taiwan consists of two Americans of Indian descent (one a former VP of the World Bank, the other working with the American military), a political theorist from Southern India, the Professor and, er, me. I am embedded in the mirage, trying to see its shape from the inside.
The goal of the trip is to see if it makes sense to foster co-operation between Taiwanese-Americans and Indian-Americans, following the model of the Professor's previous success with Jewish Americans. In the case of Taiwan, the deal would be investment in India in exchange for leverage with China, especially in economic and technical fields. We go to meetings at think tanks, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at the office for Mainland Affairs. Decisions are made, policy is debated, alliances are forged.
The Taiwanese are interested in the Professor's proposal. It makes economic sense, but there is something else: respect, and a bit may be a sprawling, crazy, complex place, but it has produced its own nuclear weapons. When you're facing China, that's a desirable quality in an ally.
After India's second round of nuclear tests, in 1998, Lloyd Axworthy, then the Canadian foreign minister, said that India's decision to test its bomb meant it had sacrificed any chance of a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. A few years later, guess who's being almost unanimously touted for membership? Even China is on board. And the Taiwanese are listening to the Professor very, very carefully.
For the first time, I realize what that really means. Or I think I do. If the Professor and others manage to create stability in Asia, India is well positioned to soar. In 2002, he proposed an "Asian NATO" to provide security for democracies in Asia. If that takes off, it would be an effective balance to China. The way the Professor frames it, a nuclear India might have the power to create peace. It's the Cold War balance of power all over again.
I want to ask the Professor about it. He agrees to submit to a Q & A. For once, there will be no red herring answers, no changing the topic, no obfuscation. Or so he says.
Cleo Paskal What was Canada's role in helping to develop India's nuclear program?
Professor Madhav Das Nalapat Significant. Through the 1960s, the Canadians helped set up our reactors and gave us much of the technology needed to operate them. This was begun during the Eisenhower and Kennedy years, when it was not seen by Western liberals as presumptuous for a Third World democracy to be a nuclear power.
CP What was the international reaction to Pokhran I [India's first nuclear tests] in 1974? How did it help and harm India?
MDN By that time, Richard Nixon had completed the seduction of Mao's China, so India was no longer seen as necessary. The West had China to confront the Soviets, and there were Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Pakistan to keep the Muslim world on the right side. A chaotic nation of 400 million people did not seem to matter-hence the anger when India went nuclear in 1974. The screws were tightened so securely that poor Indira Gandhi and all her successors as prime minister of India did not dare set off a second explosion, till Vajpayee [the then prime minister] somehow found the nerve in May 1998.
Pokhran I helped India in that we shed the image of being a technological pygmy. If India could make a bomb, surely it could make a good lathe. It was no coincidence that exports of manufactured goods jumped by 35 percent annually after the blast. The downside was that we did not follow through on this and force our way to the high table by more tests. Instead, our governments caved in and created an image of India as a "soft" state that subsequent events-such as the numerous craven surrenders to hijackers-set in stone. This perception fired up the jihadis and resulted in huge loss of life in the years after Pokhran I.
CP What happened in 1998 [to allow Pokhran II, India's second round of nuclear tests, to proceed]?
MDN Fortunately, the US had not really seen the BJP as being the party of government, so it had not developed enough lines of communication into it to send a strong warning against a fresh test. Only then Planning Commission Deputy Chairperson Jaswant Singh was in sync with US thinking. Had the Clintonites had a few more months, they would have spooked the Vajpayee team from carrying out the tests, which got conducted within weeks of Vajpayee taking charge as PM. Later, just as happened to Indira Gandhi, Vajpayee developed cold feet and agreed in secret to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, thus squandering the gains of Pokhran II. Only the defeat of Al Gore stopped this from taking place.
CP How are the Pakistani, Chinese and French nuclear programs different from the Indian one?
MDN Pakistan is what I call a "proxy" nuclear state, made nuclear so as to hobble [India], the strategic rival of the country that gave Pakistan its bomb: China. China has created at least two proxy nuclear states: North Korea and Pakistan. As for France, it got the benefit of being an ally of the US.
India's program is different from that of France and China because in our country, the military program piggybacks on the civilian. Thus, research in nuclear power has generated spinoffs that gave the country the means needed to make bombs. Progress in sending satellites into space could be utilized in designing and testing missiles with military applications. This is the reason why the Indian program is so much cheaper than the other three and why it cannot be stopped without simultaneously affecting technological advances in civilian industries.
CP You have singled out Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan as being the harshest critics of India's nuclear weapons program. Why do you think they were so vociferous?
MDN You know, I think the subliminal racism of presumed "liberals" is much more insidious than the overt biases of others seen as more hardline. The fact is that all four countries shelter under a nuclear umbrella but do not regard the billion-plus people of India as deserving of the same security. India is in the middle of a very nasty neighbourhood, and only a nuclear capability will deter some of its enemies, not UN resolutions.
After the Bush administration began to treat India as a major ally, Japan and Australia changed their attitude to India to an extent. However, both are suffering from pangs of jealousy. Japan does not want to get supplanted as Washington's biggest ally in Asia by India, while Australia is wary of a country that has so many more people and a booming economy that is neither Western nor West-obsessed as Japan is.
As for Canada, I think that the initial reaction was born out of ignorance. Once Canadians come over to India and see for themselves that the people here can be trusted with the bomb at least as much as their neighbours to the south, things will change.
CP Does the Canadian reaction to the tests still have an effect on Canadian-Indian relations?
MDN Lloyd Axworthy's racist and sneering comments still rankle, but the man has disappeared together with his attitude. So the answer is "no."
CP Where are your nukes pointed?
MDN Wish I knew! Not at Canada, the US or Europe, anyway!
CP Under what circumstances would they be used?
MDN India has a "no first use" policy, which means that nukes will be fired only if the country is attacked by nuclear weapons. In such a situation, there would be massive, non-proportional retaliation. For example, were Pakistan to ever drop a bomb on an Indian town, seventeen of its own cities would be under attack within the day. This was made explicit by the then defence minister of India.
CP Indian foreign policy right now seems to be about making friends. You've signed a security agreement with Mongolia, had the Burmese general over for a visit, and you personally go to China and Taiwan on a regular basis. Is this a new policy? How does being a nuclear power affect those relationships?
MDN India's policy is about protecting the conditions needed for orderly progress in Asia. I must confess that the British-although at some cost-taught us several things, such as that there should be a balance of power in Asia similar to that which Britain ensured in Europe, where no single power becomes dominant.
In Burma, for example, the entry of India will result in a reduction of the dependence of Rangoon on China. As for Taiwan, that is a technological superpower that has perfect complementarity with India. Their hardware, our software. Our concepts, their design. This has nothing to do with China, with which an equally vigorous economic relationship is getting built. In 2002, when I forecast on CCTV-the People's Republic of China's state television channel-that India-China trade would cross $10 billion us in a few years, there was amusement. That benchmark was crossed this year.
CP What would happen if India unilaterally disarmed?
MDN The risk of an attack by the jihadi army to our west would increase exponentially, as would the temptation to arm that force with enough firepower to destroy India's chances of emerging as a "second" China in Asia. People forget that the official motto of the Pakistan Army is "Faith, Discipline, Jihad."
CP Is there any circumstance under which India would disarm?
MDN (No reply)
CP If you believe India's nuclear program has helped to create peace in Asia, do you think the Cold War's policy of mutually assured destruction was actually effective?
MDN Absolutely. It was fear of re-taliation that drove Khrushchev from Cuba and which stopped Brezhnev from invading countries outside the Iron Curtain. If there were no nuclear arms, the USSR could have rolled up Western Europe more easily than Hitler did in 1940.
CP What can Canada learn from India?
MDN That even a non-Western country can become-and remain-a democracy. That freedom is a human value, not a Western one grafted onto other societies. India is proof that liberty is prized even in conditions of illiteracy and poverty, and not just when people are prosperous.
CP The logic is clear, within a certain context, but doesn't it ever strike you as complete madness? The existing nuclear waste alone will damage the planet for hundreds of thousands of years.
MDN Allow me to remind you of the Chinese strategist Sun Tze, who was clear that the purpose of a military was to avoid war. The purpose of a limited number of democracies getting hold of nuclear weapons is to stop authoritarian and fanatic states and quasi-states from unleashing such an attack on them. The first priority is to disarm all authoritarian and fanatic states. After that, all countries should destroy their arsenals, keeping enough for just one contingency.
CP Which is?
MDN We should have the means to vaporize a meteor, should one be coming straight at us in the future. I don't want human civilization to go the way of the dinosaurs.
And that is that. My allotted time is over and somehow the Professor has managed to manoeuvre me into a position where it seems logical that if the dinosaurs had nuclear weapons, they'd be around today. He is good. And, just maybe, he is right.
I stay on in Taiwan for an extra night after the Professor leaves. I feel as though the mirage has left with him. I am normal again-powerless, insignificant, looking for spas to review. Then I get a call from one of the Taiwanese advisors we met. Would I have time for a tea? Yes, I would.
We head out of town for a chat. From here in the mountains, Taipei glitters, a mirage of its own. We walk and chat. He wants to know who I am. I tell him, I am nothing, really. He doesn't believe me, and maybe it's no longer true.
But what he really wants to know about is the Professor. There I can't help him at all. All I can do is wait for the next call.