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Pro-Nuclear Faction in India Comes Out Singing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nationalists have launched a media campaign to rekindle support for India’s nuclear weapons program as soaring prices, crippling strikes, collapsing public services and political uncertainty have overwhelmed Indians’ initial euphoria over the atomic arms tests they conducted in May.

Thundering across all the nation’s music channels Saturday, a new six-minute music video, “We Are Indians,” opened to the boom of the five nuclear blasts and the Hindi lyrics: “Every heartbeat is singing, ‘Do not threaten us!’ Every heartbeat is singing, ‘We are afraid of no one!’ ”

As Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee declared in Parliament on Friday that he will not give in to international pressure to sign a nuclear test-ban treaty, one of his ruling party’s top state officials released the video in Bombay as “a tribute to [Vajpayee’s] unwavering leadership.”

The video, which is to air regularly for weeks on most national stations, stars a soldier who returns to universal celebration in his village after the tests.

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“We now have tested a new power,” the lyrics continue. “Our heads are high, our minds full of courage.”

Dr. Yusuf Merchant, a Bombay psychiatrist and anti-drug crusader who was asked to produce the video for a ruling party state legislator, insisted that it is neither political nor “a war song” but a message of peace.

“This is a bomb of peace, but it is also a warning to our enemies,” he said in a telephone interview, adding that the video’s proceeds will help fund his Bombay drug rehabilitation center. “I have justified the testing of the devices and tried to bond the people of India in the nationalist spirit.”

But on the streets of New Delhi, Bombay and other major cities in this impoverished nation of almost 1 billion, most people seem gripped not by their government’s achievements but by its failures.

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More than 600,000 postal workers, protesting their pay, were on strike for a third day Saturday, paralyzing the country’s mail system.

New Delhi’s government hospitals have piled up with filth, bloodied bandages and used syringes as 60,000 janitors and other health-care workers have walked off the job over salaries.

And thousands of Indians have endured hours-long power cuts and waited in torrential monsoon rains for bus service disrupted by yet another work stoppage.

In the markets, prices of such basics as onions, potatoes, tomatoes and cooking oil continue to spiral “beyond the means of the common man,” as one opposition legislator put it in Parliament last week.

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Linking the price increases to the nuclear tests and ensuing economic sanctions imposed on India by the United States and other nations, opposition leaders have asserted that the government’s policies are “breaking the backs” of India’s poor and middle class.

In recent weeks, many intellectuals have also condemned the pro-nuclear policies of Vajpayee’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which is ruling via a 14-party coalition that has teetered near collapse several times since the May 11 tests.

All but a handful of the nation’s dozens of daily newspapers have editorialized against the weapons program, and many middle-class shopkeepers, teachers and even bureaucrats are chiding the government for misplaced priorities.

“The whole thing is disgusting,” said the owner of one upscale New Delhi boutique, who asked to be identified only as Ashok. “The postal workers are on strike, the hospitals are becoming cesspools and I’m without electricity half the day. But we’ve got the bomb. Hooray. So what?”

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Indian social scientist Ashis Nandy said that view is typical of many as they suffer the brunt of the latest round of inflation, recession, labor unrest and utility breakdowns.

“After the bomb, there was a tremendous sense of achievement. Maybe four-fifths of the people supported it,” said Nandy, who heads New Delhi’s Center for the Study of Developing Society. “But that has been declining rapidly.”

A recent national survey, whose results were broadcast on the independent Star TV network, reported that 60% of those asked supported India’s nuclear program.

“I’m sure that number has declined even further,” Nandy said.

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“I think a slight majority still supports it, but Indians have become very skeptical of their political leadership,” he added. “A lot of people have begun to look at the tests as a political gimmick that doesn’t address any of India’s basic problems. Many think the bomb was an attempt to divert attention from rising prices.”

Despite the wavering public support, Vajpayee’s government remains committed to nuclear weapons as an assertion of India’s power and as a deterrent against neighboring China and Pakistan.

Pakistan responded to India’s tests by testing nuclear devices of its own.

The prime minister has appealed to his fellow Indians to endure the consequences of the tests.

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He insisted that India’s goal in joining the nuclear club is peace--to eliminate all such weapons in the world by giving India a louder voice in the global debate.

Vajpayee’s special envoy, Jaswant Singh, delivered that message to U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott when they met for more negotiations in Frankfurt, Germany, last week.

Neither side commented on the closed-door talks, in which the Clinton administration is seeking to persuade the Indians to sign the global test-ban treaty and avert an arms race in South Asia.

But Congress on Thursday undercut somewhat the administration’s attempt to keep tough pressures on the Indians by exempting food exports from the sanctions regime.

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As for India and its weapons, the nationalist position is clear at the end of Merchant’s music video.

When the soldier finally reaches his home, he is greeted by his young son. Then, images of India’s long-range Agni missile, battle tanks and Indian soldiers going to war fill the screen--"a reminder,” Merchant said, “that we do not want war, but, if we are forced, we will not act like cowards.”

Amitabh Sharma of The Times’ New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.


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