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A New, Nuclear, India?


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 northern reaches of the Himalayas; and there is increasing evidence that China has shared some of its nuclear knowledge with Pakistan. However, the government’s claim, in a letter from Vajpayee to Bill Clinton, that India’s nuclear testing was meant to dramatize the country’s security concerns before an international audience is only part of the truth.

India acquired nuclear capability in 1974 with what it termed a peaceful explosion: “The Buddha has smiled” was the coded message of success to the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi; more incongruous words have been used since then to defend and justify India’s nuclear policies. Successive Indian governments have refused to sign the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) and CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) on the grounds that these treaties discriminated against the countries outside the group of five nuclear powers (US, Russia, France, China, and Britain): an exclusive club formed of countries that had exploded a nuclear device before January 1, 1967. The Indians have long wanted to gain entry into that club: the assumption is that official recognition of their status as a nuclear power (while facilitating India’s much-sought-after permanent seat in the Security Council) would free them from the discriminatory strictures imposed on signatories of the treaties, and would bring them the special privileges and rights of other club members, which include the right to privately refine and develop nuclear armories without testing.

Much rhetoric about the need for a disarmament schedule and attacks on Western countries for their hypocrisy have been heard from the Indian representatives at various international forums on the nuclear question in recent years, while India, according to intelligence agencies in the US and Europe, was busily accumulating enough plutonium to make several bombs. Much is also known about India’s ambitious plans to build nuclear submarines and missiles, including an ICBM. Clandestine work on developing nuclear weapons has gone on for a long time. But India so far had been careful to keep up an image of self-restraint by not formally declaring or displaying its military capacity, especially recently, when relations with Pakistan and China have generally been better than at any other time in the last two decades.

The response in India makes it clear that it was more a local than an international audience that the BJP had in mind. The nuclear tests have been extremely popular, particularly among the urban middle class, the BJP’s prime constituency: initial opinion polls showed an approval rating of 91 percent; the figure may have gone down slightly since then. In the period following 1984—when the party was gaining strength—the bloody terrorist movements in Punjab and Kashmir (which caused an estimated 40,000 deaths) and the assassinations of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi as well as other Indian leaders exacerbated an underlying paranoia toward Pakistan among middle-class Hindus. In his letter to Clinton, Vajpayee described Pakistan as “bitter”—without giving a reason for that bitterness. But many Indians think it has to do with Pakistan’s humiliating defeat in the war over Bangladesh in 1971. They also believe that a vengeful Pakistan has fomented and aided all the violent secessionist movements in India in the last two decades—has, in effect, conducted a proxy war against India.

To large sections of the educated middle class, the nuclear tests—one of which, so the Indians claim, signaled hydrogen bomb capability—represent a toughness toward Pakistan that they have long wanted. Not unexpectedly, the hard-line home minister, L.K. Advani, has talked of punishing Pakistan for its support of Muslim secessionists in Kashmir. The tests removed a feeling of “national weakness” among Indians, a BJP spokesman said. This is why criticism of the Prime Minister virtually ceased for a while after the tests: he was now praised, even by his recent opponents, for being courageous and decisive, for having done what no previous government could do, and for having also in the process delivered on the BJP’s electoral promise to exercise what is referred to in India as the nuclear option.

Most Indian newspapers, although not all, have welcomed the tests and joined the government in deploring the double standard of the five nuclear powers that would deny India what they themselves possess in abundance. The opposition parties at first felt themselves compelled to go along with the public mood; the Congress Party, under Sonia Gandhi, first considered opposing the tests, then supported them, and, after the huge surge in the BJP’s popularity, which threatens them directly, is now slowly modifying its position. Some parties that formed the previous government even tried to claim credit for the tests by saying that they had prepared the ground for them. Among political parties, only the Communists at first dared to raise questions about the BJP’s motives and timing. The nation-wide euphoria over what is seen as a big step for India in the world is now likely to keep the BJP’s fickle partners in line: they will be nervous about the possibility of another round of elections, which may return the BJP to power with a clear majority, for dramatic international sanctions would stoke a defensive patriotism within India that the BJP is well-placed to exploit.

After the first wave of euphoria and celebrations, dissenting voices, however, are beginning to be heard. Scientists from two prestigious Indian institutions, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and Institute of Mathematical Research, have published protests against the tests, pointing to the incongruity of a third-world nation aspiring to first-world nuclear status. India’s two most respected news magazines, Outlook and Frontline, have expressed deep skepticism about the tests; these magazines represent the opposition to the tests among India’s small metropolitan intelligentsia.

But whipping up xenophobia and patriotic fervor among the middle class alone cannot ensure the government’s stability. Troublesome partners are quiet only for now. What is clear is that nuclear muscle-flexing will not go any way toward solving India’s gigantic problems of poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, and overpopulation. These problems are best addressed by stable governments. Whether the present government, despite its current popularity, can last its full five-year term is doubtful.


The Congress Party that led the movement for freedom from the British did provide India that essential stability for forty-three out of its fifty years, when it was the only pan-Indian political force in sight. But its decline in recent years has led to a fast turnover of political parties and personalities, with coalitions springing up overnight and members of parliament changing parties twice or thrice in a single day amid rumors of payoffs and fierce competition. Late last year, the BJP did look as if it might replace the Congress, which was seriously weakened by dissidence, while its leaders were preoccupied with fighting corruption charges in the courts. After a long run in power it won just enough seats in the elections two years ago to enable it to support, from outside, a ragtag coalition of regional and left-wing parties and keep its main competition, the BJP, at bay. For the 1998 elections, the BJP was set to achieve an easy majority in the parliament.

Then, shortly after Christmas, Sonia Gandhi announced her decision to campaign for the Congress, the party of her late husband and mother-in-law, and the situation changed for both the Congress and the BJP. In Goa, where I heard Sonia Gandhi speak at an election rally, I met an Italian journalist. He was part of the large contingent of Italian reporters and photographers trailing Mrs. Gandhi on her campaign tour across India. He already had his story. Sonia Gandhi was big news in Italy, but it wasn’t her politics anyone was interested in. It was the glamour of the dynasty, the glamour of royalty in democracy, the journalist said. It’s like—what’s the English word?—yes, soap opera. Even Oriana Fallacci, he said, couldn’t have thought up a plot where a middle-class woman from a small town near Turin tries to res-cue India’s oldest political party from extinction.

The rescue seemed improbable at the time. For one, Sonia Gandhi herself was under a cloud. Fresh revelations about the Bofors scandal that unseated her husband in 1989 implicated one of Mrs. Gandhi’s closest Italian friends in Delhi as having served as a middleman in the illegal commissions allegedly paid to Rajiv Gandhi in a deal with the Swedish artillery manufacturers.

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