Irresponsible India

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 May, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 May, 1998, 12:00am

Mahatma Gandhi's spirit must be watching in dismay. Having vowed to make outlawing the atomic bomb one of his missions in life, Gandhi would have been as appalled as the rest of the world at the recklessness of the Hindu nationalist extremists who hold power in New Delhi.

There can be no serious suggestion that the three nuclear tests, conducted near the Pakistan border, were prompted by genuine security concerns. China is being more friendly than at any time for many years, yet receives only hostility in return. Islamabad has, until now, carefully refrained from conducting its own nuclear tests.

Instead Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajaypee was clearly motivated by domestic political considerations. His weak coalition has stumbled from one crisis to another in its two months in office. Now he has managed to distract attention from such government infighting by playing the old trick of banging the patriotic drum. While these tests will inevitably be popular among Indians, some may realise the dangers of being ruled by a government which is willing to sacrifice regional stability in order to improve its political standing.

Such sentiments were evident in the more considered commentaries in the New Delhi press yesterday. The Times of India noted the tests had done little to enhance national security, since the country's possession of nuclear weapons has long been an open secret. But it warned they 'are bound to cast an ominous shadow over India's frayed relations with its neighbours'.

Beijing has good cause to feel aggrieved, given Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes' close involvement in the preparations for these tests. That means his anti-China rhetoric over the past week must now be viewed as more than the ramblings of a maverick and perhaps even as part of a calculated policy to send a warning to Beijing. In such circumstances, China's initial response to the tests was commendably mild.

The main danger now is that Pakistan will respond by conducting its own test. That would be regrettable but not surprising and an action for which India will bear most of the blame. Hints that these tests have moved New Delhi closer to signing the nuclear test ban treaty are only a belated attempt to defuse condemnation. For as long as Mr Vajaypee's government shows such a reckless disregard for regional stability, India should be left in no doubt that it risks isolation.