India Bomb Cries: 'Respect Me'

Rivalry with Pakistan isn't the point, say Indians. The bomb is meant to put 970 million people on the world stage.

India's nuclear-bomb-building program isn't really about deterring China, as this country's defense minister has suggested.

It isn't even about Pakistan, even though the two nations treat each other as enemies.

It's about "you" - as several Indians put it in recent conversations - meaning the United States. It is about contempt, a word that comes up often when people here talk about how they think India is perceived abroad.

Listen to I.K. Gujral, a recent prime minister, talking about India's perennial attempts to gain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council: "They're all talking about [bringing in] Japan and Germany. What about a billion people who live here? The more we demand, the more they treat us with contempt."

Or hear Mani Shanker Aiyer, a former member of Parliament who helped devise an Indian proposal for global nuclear disarmament: "The West ignored it contemptuously."

And Veena Talwar Oldenburg, despite her tenured position at the City College of New York and her US passport, labels US reaction to India's tests as scolding. Indians "don't want to be treated contemptuously," she says.

What is striking is that none of these people would identify themselves with the nationalist and Hindu-oriented Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the leader of the coalition government that decided to explode nuclear devices May 11 and 13. But the BJP, whose name translates to Indian People's Party, timed the blasts well.

The explosions have perked up a huge and democratic nation long frustrated with its low standing in world affairs, especially now that India has shown impressive rates of economic growth in recent years. Many people here say that India, more than China, is a superpower in the making - a free country with a growing middle class and a well-educated work force that is finally getting its act together.

So even someone like Mr. Aiyer, a vociferous BJP opponent who says having nuclear weapons is pointless and "idiotic," reserves his most bitter harangue for the United States. The ultimate provocation for India's tests is "you," he argues to an American reporter. "If you go on insisting you need weapons for your security, whether it's a penknife or a nuclear bomb, you can't teach us to obey a doctrine in which you say it's right for you to hold them and wrong for us to."

Mr. Gujral says the world would not pay attention to how threatened Indians were feeling. Although he says he perceived no "imminent threat" during his recent tenure in the prime minister's office, he says New Delhi's defense planners had become worried about an "ominous" scenario. China, to the north, is nuclear-armed, and in recent years had been helping Pakistan to develop the nuclear capability it demonstrated late last month.

Gujral says India also had begun to worry about the "Diego Garcia factor," a reference to an American military base on an island of that name in the Indian Ocean, as well as sharing in the concern that states such as Iran and Iraq might acquire the bomb.

As many analysts here have argued lately, nonproliferation doesn't feel very solid in South Asia.

Of course not everyone is so exercised about the US or even about the bomb. "In most of the rhetoric, there's this sense of 'Now we can hold ourselves up to the Americans,' " says Urvashi Butalia, a writer and publisher. "But the question is, who cares?"

And in a country where 48 percent of the population is illiterate, there is vast ignorance about the nature of nuclear weapons and their effects. Reports from the countryside say that few villagers are impressed by the bomb; their main concerns remain economic and social development.

Playing the superpower

But the bottom line is that after decades of trying to claim the moral high ground on nuclear issues by insisting on global disarmament and rejecting mere nonproliferation, India has capitulated to the Western way of conducting itself in the world - armed and loaded. "To become a superpower, you have to have the temperament of the superpower," said Shekhar Gupta, chief editor of the Indian Express newspaper, at a recent New Delhi seminar on nuclear issues.

This new position strikes some people, such as Ms. Butalia, as deeply contradictory, but many Indians feel the time has come. At the seminar, held in a club for internationalized, liberal-minded Delhi-ites, there seemed to be relief that India was finally talking the language of "credible deterrence" and "total retaliation" after so many years of "whining," in Mr. Gupta's words, about everyone else's nuclear weapons. Eerily enough, those terms sound to a Western ear like leftover sound bites from the cold war.

The BJP decided to resume testing - India detonated its first atomic bomb in 1974 - mainly for political reasons. It had long vowed to exercise the "nuclear option," and many analysts say it had to test to keep the loyalty of some Hindu organizations that are its key supporters. Nuclear testing "won't give us more dollars, but it will give us back our self-esteem," says Tarun Vijay, editor of a weekly run by the National Volunteer Corps, one of the Hindu-oriented groups.

The sense of power conveyed by the explosions will translate into a nationalistic feeling "that will energize people to work for the greater glory of the country," Mr. Vijay says.

That may be so, but it's too soon to tell whether nuclear bombs will work for the greater glory of the BJP. The party has shown mediocre returns in some local and by-elections held in recent days, and analysts say the party's nuclear policy may not translate into votes.

Reaction, home and abroad

One thing that could help the party, say Vijay and others, is if the US and other countries severely punish India for its tests. "We're not Iraq or Argentina or Brazil," he says, listing countries that have abandoned nuclear-weapons programs under pressure. "We're a nation of 900 million people, all fighters. The more [the US and others] push us, the more there will be a consolidation."

Aiyer, the onetime Rajiv Gandhi aide, worries that harsh sanctions will "undermine the sensible element" - those who might yet steer India away from turning explosions into weapons.

It seems as if many Indians will not soon forget the day they watched President Clinton scrambling to react to something India had done. "He provided 85 percent of the thrill," recalls Gita Singh, a New Delhi resident whose company arranges travel and other services for many American corporations. "He looked really frustrated, like the bully on the block who'd been shown up."

But a recollection from Gujral's days in power suggests Mr. Clinton ought not to have been too surprised. "When I met Clinton last September," Gujral says, "I discussed with him the prospects of India getting a seat on the Security Council. And I said, 'Whenever I go to the UN I see outside the Security Council chamber an invisible sign which reads, "You can come in only if you have either the bomb or money.'' ' And I said to Mr. President, 'Money may be difficult to get; the bomb is not.' "

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