Indian roulette

A veteran correspondent in India says that politics and frustrated nationalism together prompted the government to explode nuclear weapons.

By Jonathan Broder
May 14, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)
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"This is really what we wanted, to become a nuclear power. Now nobody will dare touch India, so there will be peace." The defiant, confident statement by a member of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seemed to sum up the overwhelming support in India for the nuclear weapons tests that have shocked and angered much of the rest of the world.

President Clinton on Wednesday announced a raft of tough economic sanctions on India's Hindu nationalist government and implored other countries to do the same. Clinton suggested India had conducted the underground tests -- five in the past two days -- because it feels "underappreciated in the world as a great power," but called the explosions "unjustified" and warned they had created "a dangerous new instability" in a region already destabilized by Indian-Pakistani rivalries.


One of the great fears is that Pakistan, which has fought three wars with India over the past five decades, will now conduct its own nuclear tests. In a telephone call, Clinton appealed to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resist the temptation.

The U.S. sanctions halt all American assistance to India, with the exception of humanitarian aid. From now on, the U.S. export of certain defense and technology items to India is prohibited, along with any military financing. The sanctions also end U.S. Export-Import bank credits and loan guarantees to India and bar U.S. banks from extending credit to the Indian government, except for the purchase of food and medicine. Most important, the sanctions, which are required under U.S. law, require the U.S. to vote against any loans to India by international lending institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Clinton also acknowledged that the Indian nuclear tests had caught him by surprise. He said that he had ordered CIA Director George Tenet to conduct a thorough review of the U.S. intelligence community's performance in this episode. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called the U.S. spy agencies' inability to detect India's preparations for the tests a "colossal failure," especially "in an area that we've been watching for a long time."


Salon spoke with a reporter who has also been watching the region for a long time -- former British Broadcasting Corporation correspondent Mark Tully, in New Delhi, to assess the situation on the ground.

Why is it so important, as the BJP party member said, for India to be a nuclear power?

There's a lot of politics behind this. This is the first time that the BJP has formed a government. It's very important for them to demonstrate that they are different from other parties. Going nuclear has always been part of their agenda. So, in one way, they are just simply addressing that agenda.


Secondly, the government is a very fragile coalition. It has only been in power two months. It's done nothing. Prime Minister Vajpayee desperately needed to show that he is capable of taking decisions. The National Volunteer Corps, which is the hard-line core of the BJP, have been rather bitter in their complaint that the BJP government has not been implementing their nationalist agenda. In the immediate term, the tests have definitely solidified the government politically.

Equally, I think there is a far greater feeling of frustrated nationalism in India, a feeling that India does not command the respect that it should by virtue of its size, by its successes and by the fact that it has remained a democracy. There is frustration that so much attention is paid to China and not enough to India. So there is a populist dimension to these nuclear tests as well.


Everybody is now looking at Pakistan. Are they about to go nuclear in response?

There is tremendous pressure in Pakistan to go nuclear publicly now. But there is one problem with that: Pakistan cannot demonstrate the same nuclear power that India has done. Nobody that I have met believes that Pakistan has a thermonuclear device. Therefore, if Pakistan decides to go nuclear, it could be something of a damp squid. On the other hand, if Pakistan does go nuclear and India signs the Nuclear Test Ban treaty -- which seems to be what it is offering to do -- then this in a way could put a cap on nuclear development in the region. So the developments of the past two days may not be all so depressing. In the long run, of course, if these two countries do convert their nuclear capability into actual armaments, then you do have a very dangerous situation. They're almost at war with each other in Kashmir now.

In explaining their decision to conduct nuclear testing, Indian military leaders have talked about China, not Pakistan, as their biggest military threat. How much of a threat does China actually pose?


Clearly, China is a superior military power to India. But my impression had been that China was not anxious to pick quarrels with India; that it wanted, in fact, to improve relations with India, and to achieve a phased reduction of troops on the disputed borders. These Indian explosions will make it much more difficult for China to maintain that sort of approach.

You mentioned that Indian leaders indicated they are now considering signing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. What are the chances of that happening?

I would think the chances are very good. But in doing this, India will want to make some sort of statement -- that it does not regard it as a satisfactory treaty, that India believes that its policy, which calls for universal nuclear disarmament, is the answer to the problem. And even though it is now a member of the nuclear club, India will continue to say that the treaty remains discriminatory. After all, although it will be a member of the club, it will be a rather minor member, compared with the United States.


These same Indian leaders are also indicating that the BJP government will begin placing nuclear warheads on missiles. These seem to be conflicting signals.

I don't think they are conflicting signals. On one hand, they're talking about the Test Ban Treaty. But nuclear non-proliferation is another thing entirely, and their attitude to that is far less clear. At present, it looks to me as though India is in such a mood that despite the opposition to its doing so, it will militarize these explosions. That is to say, it will start placing nuclear warheads on its missiles.

How seriously will India be affected by the sanctions announced by President Clinton on Wednesday?

India is not as dependent on aid as it once was. These days, it is much more dependent on foreign investment. The great question will be: How will these sanctions affect the foreign investment atmosphere? The United States not granting Ex-Im bank credit clearance to exporters to India could be a bit of a problem, but it won't affect people who want to invest in the country. So the hope among Indians is that, being such a large and potentially lucrative market, businessmen will say, "Well, we don't care what the government says. We're still going to go to India and do business." But if that is to happen, these explosions will have to be followed by steps to make the investment climate a lot more attractive.


But under the U.S. sanctions, India also stands to lose World Bank loans, which have totaled some $44 billion so far. How seriously will that affect the Indian economy?

We'll have to see about that one. Yes, America said that it will vote against loans to India, but the World Bank is not just America. India is quite experienced in international diplomacy and will certainly argue against the American vote. Obviously, if World Bank aid is hit, it will hurt. But as I said earlier, aid, be it World Bank aid or country-to-country aid, is no longer the factor in the Indian economy that it was before. Moreover, some countries, including France and Russia, already have indicated that they will not go along with the U.S. sanctions.

Could there be a ripple effect of this possible nuclear arms race that goes beyond the subcontinent -- with Indian or Pakistani nuclear and missile technology now being exported to other troubled third world countries?

Yes, this is a distinct possibility. Although, I think that, under the present circumstances, India would be very reluctant because it would gain no political mileage from doing so. Also, India is not a member of any alliance that might make it think about exporting or cooperating with other countries on nuclear development.


Pakistan, however, is an Islamic country, and indeed, in the early days, the Pakistani bomb was called "the Islamic bomb." I suppose there would be a greater temptation for Pakistan to help some Islamic country which wanted to develop nuclear technology. Moreover, more money could begin flowing from Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries to help Pakistan develop a bigger and better Islamic bomb.

Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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