Ever since the sands of the Rajasthan desert reverberated with the shock of India's first underground atomic test in 1974, the world has been waiting for India to openly cross the nuclear threshold.
Finally on May 11 the newly elected Hindu nationalist-led government defied warnings from the United States and other Western countries and detonated a triple underground nuclear test that could dramatically escalate into an all-out arms race in South Asia.
With New Delhi already possessing one short- and one medium-range missile system, the tests put India just a hair trigger away from possessing a significant nuclear arsenal. As the political fallout from the explosions spreads around the world, India appears as determined to pursue its own strategic agenda despite the threat of sanctions and international isolation.
The perception in political and academic circles in New Delhi is that India has gained nothing by exercising restraint, while rival Pakistan has been allowed to pursue its own clandestine nuclear-weapons program.
Not only have India's political parties closed ranks behind the Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's decision to bring his country into the five-nation nuclear club, so too have many of India's political and strategic analysts. "While we displayed restraint after 1974 and waited for some time-bound commitment from the nuclear powers to disarm, they kept showing no intention of disarming. So we were compelled to take this action," says Manoj Joshi, defense editor of India Today magazine.
Although India was the first country to propose a ban on nuclear testing, it has refused to sign global treaties to stop nuclear proliferation and testing. Successive governments in New Delhi have said the treaties are discriminatory because they allow a few countries to hold nuclear arms indefinitely.
With Prime Minister Vajpayee finally putting into practice what other political leaders had preached but never dared to do, the decision is bound to boost his government's popularity in an electorate clamoring for an effective deterrent to counter the perceived nuclear threats from Pakistan and China. "If in 1974 there was a peaceful nuclear explosion, Monday's test was an explosion for peace without violating any international law," says Jasjit Singh, director of the Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses.
In taking their dramatic and risky decision, India's Hindu nationalists appear confident that there is enough domestic support for them to ride out international condemnation. "Far from leading to regional tension, the test will create a stabilizing atmosphere, so important for peace not only in the region but also for the whole continent of Asia," argues M.L. Sondhi, chairman of the Center for Conflict Power Resolution at Jawarharlal University in New Delhi. "Because, if India is better prepared militarily there is lesser prospect of war breaking out in this part of the world."
Other analysts believe that the nuclear tests will strengthen India's bargaining powers for gaining a permanent seat on the UN Security Council - a long-held dream of New Delhi's. But playing nuclear poker could turn out to be a high risk strategy. The tests come at a time when relations between India and its largest neighbors, China and Pakistan, both of which have gone to war with New Delhi in the past, have deteriorated sharply.
Only last week India was forced into an embarrassing retreat after Beijing reacted angrily to a spate of controversial comments by Defense Minister George Fernandes on the military threat posed by China. Mr. Fernandes added fuel to the fire by accusing the Chinese of helping Pakistan develop the Ghauri nuclear-capable missile.
Analysts point out that the blasts will put pressure on Pakistan to show its hand and undertake its own nuclear test. Not to do so would make it appear vulnerable at a time when the Pakistani public is increasingly favoring a nuclear-equipped defense arsenal.
Similarly the government in New Delhi will now find it difficult to swim against the tide of opinion clamoring for the testing to be taken to its logical conclusion. "We have dropped the nuclear ambiguity completely," says Praful Bidwai an independent strategic analyst. "China and Pakistan will regard us as a full-fledged nuclear adversary and so we will have two nuclear arms races - a small one with Pakistan and a big one with China."