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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

A MAN WITH A BOMB

A nuclear test makes good domestic politics
but lousy foreign policy

By Tim Healy


Fallout: Tokyo and Washington vow sanctions against New Delhi

Wannabe: Is India now a nuclear power?

Mission Accomplished: The father of India's weapons program

THE FIRST RESULTS OF DOMESTIC POLLS only confirmed what members of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party already knew: The tests of three nuclear devices May 11 in a remote piece of the Thar Desert of western Rajasthan state were wildly popular among the general public. How to follow up on the success? More bombs. On May 13 at the same location, India thumbed its nose at near-global condemnation of the earlier explosions and detonated two additional nuclear devices.

The dates for the tests seemed carefully considered. For starters, thick sandstorms this time of year shield activity on the ground from the prying eyes of spy satellites. After the first test, one U.S. senator said that American intelligence suffered a "colossal failure" in failing to detect India's plans in advance. There was nothing to suggest that the succeeding test was any less a surprise. In addition, the day of the first test was both auspicious and historic. Detonation took place on Buddha's birthday, an Indian holiday which follows the lunar calendar. India's only previous nuclear bomb test, in May 1974, also occurred on the birthday of Buddha, whom Hindus consider an avatar of their own great god Vishnu. At the time, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was told of the test's success with the code words: "The Buddha is smiling."

Times have changed. Back then, in the middle of Cold War maneuverings, the political calculus of India's nuclear test could assume that the global response would fall almost entirely along ideological lines - condemnation from India's foes, Pakistan and China among them; and congratulations from supporters, particularly the then Soviet Union. But today the smiles, Buddha-like and otherwise, come almost exclusively from within India. A poll by The Times of India conducted in six cities less than 24 hours after the first set of tests revealed a staggering 91% of those interviewed approved of the blasts.

Outsiders, on the other hand, were aghast in nearly equal strength. Japan's Foreign Minister Obichi Keizo summoned India's ambassador based in Tokyo, telling him: "Japan strongly demands that India discontinue developing nuclear weapons immediately." To add force to his statement, he said that the government would review its economic involvement in India. Beijing seemed stunned into silence after India's announcement. All a foreign ministry spokesman could manage was: "The Chinese government expresses grave concern over India launching nuclear tests." Australia recalled its high commissioner to India as Alexander Downer, the foreign minister, said his government "unreservedly condemns what the Indian government has done." U.S. President Bill Clinton vowed to levy sanctions against India based on a 1994 law that has never before been invoked. At stake: Well over $1 billion in loans, loan guarantees, political-risk insurance and humanitarian aid. The Times of India staunchly defended its government: "The response of the West, as hypocritical as it is fanatical, has been to use the threat of economic sanctions to bring about a reversal of India's policy." The sanctions, it added, would be "self-defeating" as "India has crossed the nuclear Rubicon and the clock cannot be turned back."

Clearly the Indian leadership headed by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had already decided that the potential benefits of the nuclear tests justified any resulting risks. For one thing, New Delhi can claim to need a deterrent against potentially belligerent neighbors, namely Pakistan, a long-time rival, and China, with which it had, until recently, been enjoying a bit of a rapprochement. Pakistan tested a new intermediate-range missile last month that could conceivably carry nuclear warheads as far as Bangalore in southern India. (Lest anyone miss the point, the missile is named the Ghauri after a 12th-century Mughal leader who defeated an Indian army.) As for China, Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes has recently proclaimed it as the No. 1 threat to his nation's security. And China of course is a nuclear power, having carried out tests in both 1995 and 1996. Finally, there was a domestic imperative. The BJP had campaigned on a platform in which it promised to strengthen India militarily, including reviving its nuclear missile program.

India has reportedly been scientifically ready to test nuclear explosions for at least two years. Former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao decided not to go nuclear. But Vajpayee and the BJP were never reluctant. In fact, Vajpayee would have ordered the tests during his last administration in 1996 but for the fact that the party's tenuous hold on power lasted only 13 days.

The BJP government, returned to power for less than two months, found itself struggling again. Though it is the dominant party in the coalition, its partners have turned increasingly contentious in recent weeks about corruption among BJP appointees and control over patronage. Also, Vajpayee himself has become a frequent butt of political cartoonists in India, who caricature him as depressed, woebegone and politically weak. But the nuclear tests have apparently changed all that - at least for the time being. "People will say the government has taken a very bold step," says BJP general secretary Krishnan Lal Sharma. "It will also prove that our government means what it says."

In the first set of bomb tests, Vajpayee ordered three devices to be exploded. One was a low-intensity bomb designed for strategic, battlefield use to wipe out an advancing tank column or ground thrust. The second was a testing device that gives scientists valuable information on the fission material used. It is not a practical weapon. The third bomb, a so-called city-killer, was about the same size - 12.5 kilotons, roughly equivalent to 12,500 tons of TNT - as the warhead dropped by the U.S. on Hiroshima toward the end of World War II. The second round featured relatively smaller sub-kiloton devices.

Domestic reaction was as positive as the BJP could have hoped. The Pioneer daily in New Delhi called the test "an explosion of self-esteem." Another newspaper in the capital city declared in an editorial that India had begun to walk "the road to resurgence." Savita Pande, an analyst at the government-funded Institute for Defense and Strategic Analysis, told Asiaweek: "We have two hostile neighbors - Pakistan and China - who both have nuclear weapons. Surely it is unsafe when some have weapons and others don't."

Up until now, the world recognized five declared nuclear powers - the U.S., Russia, Britain, France and China - and three undeclared ones, India, Pakistan and Israel. With India now a definite power, will Pakistan be next? Is the potential nuclear flashpoint in South Asia about to become a reality? Pakistan has fought three wars with India since the British relinquished their hold over the sub-continent in 1947. The two sides now suffer an uneasy border peace, particularly over Kashmir, the 50-year-old issue that drives massive defense spending in two struggling economies.

In the days following India's announcement, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met with top nuclear scientists, military leaders and politicians to formulate a response. The options were limited. Some argued that the nation should immediately go forward with its own nuclear test. Saleem Mahmood, the head of one defense and technology organization in Islamabad, said Pakistan "does not lag behind India" in nuclear capability and could conduct its own test "any time it wants." But even if the braggadocio were true, the nation had to consider reaction from other countries. Pakistan's finances are considerably weaker than India's, and its reliance on outside assistance makes it even more vulnerable to sanctions and blocked foreign investment.

Still, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto claims South Asia is on the verge of an arms race that will further impoverish the poor people of the region. If so, and it looks increasingly likely, Pakistan and India would be following a very familiar path. In the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. engaged in an arms escalation that eventually proved ruinous to the Soviet Union. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which must be ratified by 44 countries by September of 1999 to take effect - so far, only 13 have done so - was supposed to put an end to nuclear one-up-manship once and for all. But the events of recent days have changed that.

Or have they? In a similar situation two years ago, China conducted a series of globally unpopular underground nuclear tests - and then agreed to sign the test ban agreement. Following India's recent detonations, a government official said the nation "would consider being an adherent to some of the undertakings in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty." Up to now, both India and Pakistan have criticized the treaty as discriminatory because it essentially enshrines existing nuclear powers in advantageous positions - they, after all, have the bombs. If India were a signatory, Pakistan could still make the same charge. Or Pakistan could could stop making statements and start making bombs.

With two demonstrations of nuclear might behind it, India promised there would not be a third. The May 13 detonations "completed the planned series," according to a government statement. If that is the case, India just might sign the test ban treaty. But only if it will help the BJP government continue to rate high in those all-important opinion polls - and to stay in power.

- With reporting by Arjuna Ranawana/New Delhi


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