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Understanding Nuclear India

Atul Kohli is the David K.E. Bruce Professor of Politics and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs, Princeton University and the author of Democracy and Discontent: India's Growing Crisis of Governability.

The Christian Science Monitor, Boston, May 18, 1998

By exploding five nuclear devices during the last week, India has loudly announced to the world its ambitions to stay in the nuclear game. Since India has had nuclear capacity for nearly a quarter of a century, the fact of the blasts does not significantly alter the regional nor the international status quo. The main audience for the blasts is within India, where the move was rightly calculated to be extremely popular, and where a new but troubled Hindu nationalist government hopes to shore up its sagging legitimacy. Knowledgeable observers of India ought to have seen this coming.

The blasts should not be a cause for alarm or overreaction by the United States or the international community. These detonations were driven primarily by domestic political calculations and do not signify the emergence of a more aggressive India.

Most Indian governments in recent years resisted declaring India a nuclear power, reasoning rightly that whereas denial on this issue minimized international costs, open knowledge of possessing nuclear weapons and delivery capacity still enhanced India's national security. This ambiguous posture served India well for more than two decades. What has changed now that has led India to declare itself a nuclear power?

The catalyst is the electoral triumph of the Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.), a Hindu nationalist party that took the helm of a shaky coalition government in Mar. after decades of rule by the centrist Congress party and several left-of-center coalition experiments. The right-wing B.J.P.'s electoral stock has been rising steadily over this decade due to its commitment to Hindu nationalism, which translated into several distinct political positions.

First, the party sought to enhance the unity of Hindus - nearly 80 percent of India's population - by championing a number of anti-Muslim issues, including building a Hindu temple on the site of a mosque destroyed by the party faithful in 1992. Second, it has had a strong commitment to economic nationalism, notably limiting foreign investment and going slow on economic liberalization. And finally, the B.J.P. has argued that India deserves greater respect in the global arena, a respect that would be commensurate with nearly a billion people with a 5,000-year-old civilization. As such, it has long advocated strengthening India's defenses, in particular moving India openly toward the status of a nuclear power.

The B.J.P. emerged as the single largest party in the Indian parliament, just ahead of the Congress party, after the last general election. However, the B.J.P. was still far short of a clear majority. While trying to form a coalition with a disparate set of other parties, the B.J.P. not only compromised some of its more controversial goals, especially its anti-Muslim politics, but also dissipated political energy managing a bickering, personalistic set of coalition partners.

Pursuing India's nuclear option is the only commitment that the factious coalition could rally around and the only one on which it could count on widespread support among Indians. The nuclear blasts have given Indians a sense, even if only temporarily, that their poverty, corruption, and numerous other problems aside, they are global players, worthy of respect. The B.J.P. desperately counts on this response to endure so it can shore up its political position.

The global reaction of surprise and alarm to India's nuclear blasts is excessive. The commitment of the new Indian government to pursue the nuclear option has long been part of the B.J.P.'s political platform. India's nuclear blasts also ought not to set off loud international alarms. While many countries have reacted negatively, only the U.S. and Japan have proclaimed some economic sanctions; Britain, Russia, and France, by contrast, have sensibly argued against sanctions. One wishes that India's leaders would redirect that country's nationalism toward the creation of a prosperous, healthy, well-educated nation that is respectful of minority rights. Nevertheless, these recent developments are aimed primarily at the Indian people and only secondarily at the world stage. India remains a responsible democracy where there would be widespread opposition to any irresponsible use of nuclear power.