NEW DELHI -- When India first flexed its atomic muscle in 1974, it chose a national holiday that celebrates Buddha's achievement of enlightenment. To inform Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that the test explosion had succeeded, her advisers flashed a message: "The Buddha is smiling."
Twenty-four years later on the same holiday, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee proudly announced that India had detonated three underground nuclear tests at the same desert site near the Pakistan border. Two days later, India conducted two more underground nuclear tests.
The country erupted with defiant joy. But the United States swiftly imposed trade sanctions on a large democracy with which Washington wants stronger ties. And Pakistan suggested that it would test its own nuclear device.
The blasts send South Asia hurtling toward a risky arms race that such a poor and overpopulated region can hardly afford. India, with a stable democracy, emerging middle class and growing economy, seems to have favorable prospects. Why would it risk its recent gains?
The fact that India, one of the original champions of nuclear disarmament, went ahead with the tests says a lot about how both India and the world have changed since the Buddha smiled at Indira Gandhi in 1974.
"We are a global player now," declares Pramod Mahajan, an aide to the prime minister.
For the 2-month-old government led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, the decision to go nuclear is the ultimate show of strength: It affirms India's scientific achievements, defies world opinion and solidifies the BJP's domestic power as a party that ended 24 years of nuclear ambiguity and will not equivocate in defending what it sees as India's interests. India had been torn over how to project its nuclear prowess. It developed atomic weapons technology secretly and never signed international treaties, which it said favored the five nuclear powers. Two years ago a previous Indian government buckled to a U.S. threat of sanctions and scrapped a planned nuclear test.
For the BJP, which has long advocated declaring India a nuclear-weapons power, domestic opinion is paramount. "People felt that the policy of restraint improved neither India's image nor its security," says Dhirubhai Sheth, a political sociologist at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi.
While India held back from testing and deploying nuclear weapons, he notes, "national pride was hurt" when violators of international law, particularly China, got away with hardly a slap on the wrist from the United States.
Vajpayee's order to conduct five underground blasts is wildly popular here. In New Delhi, well-wishers flocked to his residence to greet him with marigold garlands and patriotic banners. Villagers in the northwestern state of Rajasthan celebrated with song and dance as word spread that the explosions they had heard in the distance emanated from bombs.
"We may be poor, but we have shown we are great. We did this on our own," says K. L. Munjala, shopkeeper in New Delhi. Krishnan Khosla, a college student, adds: "For 24 years we waited. It's high time that we showed we are at a par with other countries, not backward."
Newspaper editorials echoed the theme. The Pioneer hailed "an explosion of self-esteem." A front-page editorial in the Indian Express praised a "jump-start to India's dormant, free spirit."
India justifies the tests on security grounds. Its most immediate tension is with Pakistan, with which it has fought three wars since 1947. But Vajpayee cited China, the emerging economic and military superpower on India's disputed northern border.
How real is the China threat? Chinese experts say that India ranks low on the list of Beijing's strategic interests, well below the problem with Taiwan. Even China's initial reaction to the Indian bomb test was muted. Only after the second set of tests did China accuse India of trying to "dominate" South Asia.
The two Asian giants fought a brief border war in the Himalayas in 1962, decisively won by China. India chafes at Beijing's military aid to Pakistan, and China resents India's sympathy for Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. But there is no immediate threat of a military conflict.
Still, defense analysts here insist that China poses a long-term security threat and that the nuclear tests have helped to level the diplomatic and military playing field. "China will have to learn to live with India being an equal," says Brahma Chellaney, professor of security studies at the Center for Policy Research, a think tank in New Delhi.
Perhaps more important to Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist party is the domestic political payoff. The more severe the international reaction to India's bomb, the easier it will be for the BJP to capitalize on resentment of the United States and other critics.
"Treating India as a rogue state, like Iraq or North Korea, is real fodder for militant nationalism," says Sheth, the political sociologist.
In its purest form, the BJP's ideology calls for India, 82 percent Hindu, to be a Hindu state reflecting "one nation, one people, one culture." It champions the restoration of a Hindu way of life that BJP leaders say existed in India before Muslim and European invaders arrived. The party has called for revoking laws that give concessions to Muslims, who are 12 percent of the population.
Critics call this ideology chauvinistic in a country that is a patchwork of religions, cultures and language groups. And they remind that modern India's founders sought to establish a secular national identity that united disparate communities.
The BJP appeals to middle-class Hindus uneasy about the increasing political clout of low-caste Indians and minorities, manifested in the form of small political groupings and affirmative-action programs. The party's backing for free-market policies long before liberalization of the state-dominated economy in 1991 also won support from the merchant class.
The BJP came to power in March by soft-pedaling its ideology in favor of a commitment to clean and efficient government. Though it widened its political base in the election, it lacks the backing of most Indians. It won about a third of the seats in Parliament and 25 percent of the votes cast. It currently heads a splintered coalition of 13 parties.
But the nuclear tests have silenced political criticism. Even Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born head of the opposition, endorsed the tests. Suddenly, a BJP that had been toning down its policies to enter the political mainstream has enormous latitude to pursue its more ideological social agenda.
Some analysts liken the nuclear foray to a campaign the BJP waged in the 1980s. It roused the Hindu faithful with demands that a temple to the Hindu god Ram be built in his reputed birthplace in northern India. Eventually, a mob of Hindu fanatics tore down a 400-year-old mosque at the site in 1992. Ensuing religious riots across India killed thousands of people and dealt the BJP a political setback.
A nuclear hand, too, can be overplayed, the analysts warn.
Pub Date: 5/16/98