16 May 1998
by CHRISTOPHER KREMMER, in New Delhi for the Sydney Morning Herald
INDIA'S Hindu nationalists are partying. With five exquisitely timed nuclear explosions this week, they have blown away their enemies. Domestic opposition, foreign investors, the hated Pakistanis and the big powers - everyone who dared question their resolve to transform India from global joke to formidable force.
Monday's three underground blasts at the Pokharan test range in the desert state of Rajasthan included a hydrogen bomb - the world's most devastating weapon - and a low-yield test aimed at developing nuclear weapons small enough to be delivered by fighter planes or artillery.
India's holdings of enriched uranium are believed sufficient to have produced 60 to 100 bombs, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Government intends to build missiles capable of carrying warheads as far as Jakarta and Beijing. Wednesday's additional two blasts were the BJP's coup de grace. The message at the core of the tests: the world doesn't have India to kick around any more.
"Everyone is just stunned by timing, the secrecy and the sheer political astuteness of what the Indians have done. There is method in their madness," said one Western diplomat.
When President Kocheril Raman Narayanan addressed Parliament on March 25, his recitation of the incoming Government's program made no mention of the nuclear program.
After his Government narrowly won a vote of confidence on March 28, the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, announced a review of all aspects of defence policy, including the nuclear option. In April, the Defence Minister, George Fernandes, said: "I don't think we need to test at this point in time." But besieged by infighting in his 17-party coalition, Vajpayee, 73, was moving in the opposite direction, towards a radical strategy to ensure that even if his Government fell, it would be remembered as bold and decisive.
In early April, Vajpayee and his principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra, consulted the head of the country's defence research program, Dr A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, on how soon they could test. The successful test-firing by Pakistan on April 6 of the Gauri missile - capable of carrying nuclear warheads to all India's main cities - gave impetus to the process.
But Gauri was little more than a pretext. In 1995, the then prime minister, P. V. Narasimha Rao, had ordered scientists to prepare to explode a nuclear device. Only early warning from US spy satellites allowed Washington to bring heavy pressure to bear in time to abort the tests.
As a result, much of the above-ground infrastructure to support testing at Pokharan was moved underground. Even then, US satellites detected unusual activity in the days leading up to the first three tests on May 11, but inexplicably failed to interpret and pass on the intelligence.
The shock announcement inspired emotions from quiet pride to raucous celebrations in the world's largest democracy. Firecrackers burst and sweets were distributed in what one newspaper called an "explosion of self-esteem".
India's Atomic Energy Commission, set up in 1948 and generously funded since, began weapons-related research after China exploded its first nuclear device in 1964. Help for the program from General Electric Canada dried up after India staged a "peaceful nuclear explosion" at Pokharan in May 1974, but Indian scientists using local uranium built power stations, heavy water plants, reprocessing plants and now, it is clear, bombs.
The BJP expected the storm of condemnation provoked by this week's tests. Vajpayee told supporters: "We will be denied aid, credit, assistance and we will face problems."
The Prime Minister also wrote to world leaders, saying that China's clandestine support for Pakistan's growing nuclear weapons program was the main rationale for the tests.
An offer to adhere in future to some provisions of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) of 1996 failed to placate anyone. Sanctions announced by Bill Clinton were stiff and open-ended, despite the US President's "more in sorrow than anger" tone, but the main blow will be US opposition to concessional loans from the World Bank. A $US170 million ($268 million) renewable energy project and a $US450 million power project await the green light.
As the envoys of the US, Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and other countries were recalled for consultations, shares and the currency plunged in response to sanctions. But if knees were knocking under the Cabinet table, it didn't show. While the pro-bomb consensus will erode, the BJP has reaped great political rewards.
New Delhi believes there is no better time than the present to risk the wrath of the US. India's gradually liberalising economy remains a strong lure to foreign traders and investors. The US is its largest trading partner, with $US15 billion in two-way trade.
Foreign aid is worth $US1.27 billion a year to India, but the country can survive without it. It is not under an International Monetary Fund (IMF) program and sanctions would not effect existing World Bank loans.
The effectiveness of US sanctions would also be undermined by lack of support from Britain, France and many of India's friends in the Non-Aligned group of countries. The sanctions will collapse before India does.
Above all, India judges that the West's concern about China's growing clout will lead it to see a nuclear-armed, democratic India as a useful counterweight.
India's Defence Minister last month called China the potential "threat number one". But Pakistan refuses to be written out of the script. In 1985, the Pakistani military dictator Zia ul-Haq told the Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, that Islamabad had the bomb. Public figures have regularly since admitted to capability estimated at up to 20 bombs.
The dash to Islamabad by the US Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, aims to prevent Pakistan mimicking India's latest nuclear initiative and creating the long-feared "Muslim" bomb. The statement issued after Thursday's Cabinet meeting in Islamabad, however, said Pakistan would not succumb to any "unilateral, selective or discriminatory pressures".
"Our device exists and is ready to go. It could be a matter of days," Mirza Aslam Beg, a former Pakistan chief of army staff, told the Herald.
US spy satellites are watching the Chagai Hills in western Pakistan, believed a likely test site.
Despite being vulnerable to any cut-off of a $US1.5 billion IMF package, Pakistan's Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, has little room to manoeuvre. There is intense pressure to match India from the Opposition, led by Benazir Bhutto, and the religious Right.
The CTBT - centrepiece of the Howard Government's disarmament strategy, signed by 149 countries in 1996 - is blamed by many for an avoidable tragedy. Australia took the treaty to the United Nations General Assembly, provoking an Indian veto.
"Australia's victory in getting the CTBT through the UN General Assembly can now be seen as a pyrrhic one. It served only to corner India and harden its stance on the nuclear option," said Professor Ramesh Thakur, head of the Peace Research Centre in Canberra. This week, the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, who has invested much personal prestige in the CTBT, cancelled defence co-operation and non-humanitarian aid.
But India's Ministry of External Affairs has firmly told Australian diplomats that Canberra does not understand India's security concerns, partly because it lives under the comfortable shelter of the US nuclear umbrella.
"Because of its role in leading the CTBT debate, Australia no longer has any influence in India," Professor Thakur said.
Now the CTBT is in peril due to the failure of US satellites to detect the Indian tests. The treaty is based on satellite verification of compliance.
"They just blew up the chances for ratification," said a spokesman for Senator Jesse Helms, a leading opponent of the treaty in the US Congress.
Also in jeopardy is the US law, authored by the former astronaut John Glenn, that mandated sanctions against India. It is a blunt instrument unsuited to helping solve the crisis in South Asia. If Pakistan explodes a nuclear bomb - as it appears to feel it must - and loses IMF credits, the country will default, with the risk of similar social upheaval as is being seen in Indonesia. An anti-US Islamic revolution could not be ruled out - in a country that had just gone nuclear.