India's Nuclear Plans Keep Indian Electorate, and U.S., Guessing

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India's Nuclear Plans Keep Indian Electorate, and U.S., Guessing

By M.M. Ali

The New York Times disclosed in early December that the United States had obtained evidence through its space satellites that India was preparing for a nuclear test at its Pokaran facility in Rajasthan. There were other reports that Washington had been in touch with New Delhi on the issue, and that U.S. Ambassador Frank Wisner had told India of adverse American reaction. New Delhi, in turn, denied any such plans.

The New York Times followed its report with a strongly worded editorial on Dec. 29 that said: "Now comes word that India, which conducted its one and only nuclear test in 1974, is considering some testing of its own. Even worse, India now suggests it may not sign the test-ban treaty, despite longstanding support for such an agreement." The Times added: "These moves can only raise tensions in South Asia, damage the cause of nuclear non-proliferation and undercut the goals India says it espouses."

New Delhi had before it the examples of France and China, both of which have defied world opinion and gone ahead with their underground nuclear tests in recent months. Other than some protests, there were no visible adverse political or economic consequences for either power. Additionally, a recent public opinion poll conducted by the leading monthly magazine India Today and published on Dec. 31, 1995 showed 62 percent approval among Indians for a nuclear test.

This is an election year for Narasimha Rao's Congress Party government, which is being challenged seriously by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Rao may be calculating whether going ahead with a popular nuclear weapons program will give him an edge with the 1996 electorate. The flip side of the question is: what would the United States give if Rao agrees not to go ahead with the nuclear test? Will the consequences of either course make a measurable difference in the electoral outcome? Unfortunately, mixing nuclear weapons and domestic politics seems an exquisitely delicate and dangerous game. A small miscalculation could, literally, have disastrous consequences for the entire region.

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor of Dec. 28, 1995, Jonathan Landay observed: "At a minimum the foes [India and Pakistan] may be headed into an accelerating arms race that will worsen tensions and undermine their economic development...even the smallest of inadvertent incidents could escalate into the fourth Indo-Pakistan war...Only this time, it might go nuclear."

Michael Krepon of the Henry Stimson Center, a Washington, DC think tank, warned: "South Asia is on the threshold of significantly increased tensions and nuclear dangers. It is a region prone to mishap, prone to miscalculation." An American intelligence official called the India-Pakistan confrontation "one of the world's most potentially dangerous situations."

In the light of such scary evaluations, Narasimha Rao realizes that he holds a critical trump card and in view of the geo-political importance of India, he perhaps can draw big dividends through nuclear posturing. It is an unfortunate deduction that the greater the risk, the greater the reward. He perhaps also knows that Pakistan will not be left far behind in this dangerous game. Islamabad already has alerted Washington about such an eventuality. It appears that Bill Clinton will have his hands full on the external front during his own election year. Mounting nuclear tension in the subcontinent certainly was not in the cards in Washington.

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