A New, Nuclear, India?

Atal Bihari Vajpayee
Atal Bihari Vajpayee; drawing by David Levine


In early March this year, India had a new government. It was the seventh to be formed in less than a decade; and it seemed for the first few weeks as though the eighth was not very far off. The Hindu nationalist BJP (Indian People’s Party) and its allies, in office for a total of thirteen days in 1996, had a hard time mustering the required majority in the parliament and then came under heavy pressure from its coalition partners.

The leader of one of the BJP’s more important allies, from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, an eccentric former film star called Jayalalitha, whose party has eighteen seats in the parliament, bargained hard to have her supporters included in the central cabinet, and started attacking the new prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, for forcing out one of them after he was charged in a corruption case. The Prime Minister was slow to fire two others of his coalition partners—both facing corruption charges. Other partners branded him as weak and indecisive, and then made their own demands; one called for the dismissal of an elected state government. Rumors about the impending collapse of the government in the forthcoming parliamentary session had started going around when in mid-May the government resorted to an old bogey—national security—to buy time for itself.

After four wars with China and Pakistan in the last fifty years, and several violent separatist movements, a general consensus exists in India on issues of national security: no political party can question the country’s huge defense expenditure (nine soldiers for every doctor) without being called anti-national. Thus saber rattling and rhetoric about threats to India’s security from China and Pakistan have become favorite ruses of beleaguered Indian governments. India’s first nuclear test in 1974 came in handy for Indira Gandhi when she was facing a crippling railway strike (the first of the political challenges that eventually led her to suspend civil rights in 1975). When faced with growing allegations of incompetence and corruption in 1987, Rajiv Gandhi had military exercises held provocatively close to the Pakistan border and made political capital out of the resulting tension. The jingoism of a weak coalition government almost forced India into war with Pakistan in 1989.

Some sort of Indian response was in the cards once Pakistan, which acquired nuclear capability in the 1980s, announced in April the successful test-firing of an IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile) capable of carrying nuclear warheads as deep as 1000 miles into Indian territory. On May 28 Pakistan announced that it had carried out nuclear tests. But few people expected the response to the April announcement to be as emphatic—and, for the BJP, well-timed—as India’s five nuclear tests in early May, which radically redefined India’s relationship with the world.

A low-intensity military conflict with Pakistan has been going on for the last decade in the remote…

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