Dangerous posturing

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 March, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 March, 1998, 12:00am

Atal Behari Vajpayee, India's prime minister designate, chose the eve of his installation to remind the world of India's status as a threshold nuclear power. The tone was deliberately assertive. When he takes over the reins of power later today, Mr Vajpayee wants to appear the strong man who will lead a nation unafraid of either openly nuclear China or nuclear-capable Pakistan. It was a message guaranteed to raise tensions with both India's prickly northern neighbours, fuelling fears of a regional arms race. It was also a gesture of defiance against the United States and the UN Security Council. India and Pakistan have both refused to sign up to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

Yet Mr Vajpayee's statement that India would keep its nuclear options open was, in reality, an admission that his own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had been forced to tone down its sabre-rattling in deference to the more moderate parties with which it will now rule India. There will be a strategic defence review, which most military analysts would argue was anyway long overdue. A more belligerent posture may result. But there will not, for the moment, be a decision on nuclear weapons development.

Underlying the stirring words is the reality that the new Government's position will not be radically different from that of the outgoing and previous Governments. They too had left the country's nuclear options open. However, they laid more stress on the ambiguity of their policy.

In opposition, the BJP made no secret of its hawkish views. In last month's election manifesto, the party openly proclaimed its intention to develop a nuclear weapons programme backed by an arsenal of short and medium range missiles. But, while the manifesto revealed the true face of Mr Vajpayee's party, the BJP will not rule India alone. Even in coalition it will be leading a minority government. The coalition could break up at the slightest hint that the BJP is reverting to policies its partners have persuaded it to put on hold.

The assertive posturing is dangerous, because of the challenge it poses to China and Pakistan to respond in kind. For the moment, however, the reality is less threatening than the words.