IN ONE of the Indian artillery encampments littering the roadside near Drass in northern Kashmir, a soldier pointed to a snow-capped mountain peak where Pakistani sharp-shooters hide. "That's where they fired the Stinger that brought down our helicopter gunship," he said. "But the highway is the most vulnerable. They always target it."

Thirteen months ago, India's Hindu Nationalist Party, the BJP, celebrated its election victory by staging five nuclear tests and declaring India a nuclear power. One year on, it is reaping the whirlwind.

With three months to go before a general election, the caretaker government, still headed by the nationalists, finds itself in the middle of India's worst military fiasco since the Chinese sent its army packing in 1962. A party whose touchstone is national pride and self-assertion is presiding over a humiliation which in the worst case could lead to the nation's dismemberment.

This is not Indo-Pak-Kashmir business as usual. Attacks across the "line of control" (LoC), Kashmir's de facto border, during the past 10 years have been like gnat bites, lightning attacks by Kashmiris or Afghans who set off explosions or attack army positions and rapidly withdraw. The two countries' armies have also routinely exchanged artillery fire.

But the war that began on 6 May, when intruders wearing "black dress" were spotted north-east of Kargil, several miles inside the Indian side of the LoC, is much more serious. The infiltrators, who may number 1,000, including several hundred Pakistani Army regulars, have been setting themselves up in this bleak, rugged, snowbound terrain for months - possibly since January.

India's fragmented intelligence agencies failed to detect them. By the time they were discovered, they were masters of the game, kings of the castle, installed in cement bunkers on the peaks overlooking the national highway that is northern Kashmir's lifeline. They are equipped with sophisticated military radios, mortars, radar, snowmobiles and Stinger missiles. They have good lines of supply back into the Pakistani side, with helipads at 16,000ft.

For those with long memories, the echoes are sinister. "Wasn't this how it all began 52 years ago?" wrote Dinesh Kumar in Delhi's Sunday Times, referring to Pakistan's invasion of Kashmir in 1947, which cut the state in two. "Then a second time in 1965" - Pakistan's Operation Gibraltar, which led to the second Indo-Pakistan war.

The national highway that links Srinagar with Leh, capital of the Ladakh region, has been intermittently shelled from the Pakistani side of the LoC for two years, but now guerrillas perched above it can direct the fire, the impact is devastating.

Towns in the line of fire have been abandoned. Drass is one of the coldest places on earth, with 30ft of snow every winter, but life returns in June, the barley is sown and farmers prepare for the long winter. Not this June. The townspeople have fled incessant shelling that damaged every building. Untended cattle nibble the few barley seedlings.

One farmer, Juman Khan, wept at the desolate scene. "Either I stay in the village and do the farming or I save my life," he said. "It's a tough decision." Like 10,000 others, he fled with his family, first to Kargil, then, when that became too dangerous, he settled his family in the village of Sanku, 12 miles away. He came back to Drass on his own. "It's painful being separated from my family, but I love Drass, and I miss the home I have built and the river." But he won't stay long: with homes, government offices and the hospital in ruins, the town is a husk.

In the square a bus pulled up and 30 local people, among the last remaining, scrambled on. They had been squatting in the square, braving artillery fire, for four days, waiting for it. "We prayed and prayed and our prayers have been answered," said a woman called Fatima, clawing her way on board. "We want to escape from Drass before the artillery gets us."

It's the same story up and down the highway. In Srinagar, taxi-drivers refuse to use the route. Beyond Zojila Pass, where Kashmir Valley's lushness gives way to the treeless waste, the road is the preserve of the military, with bunkers and camouflaged artillery pieces and machine- gun posts and anti-aircraft guns cramming the verges.

Beyond the village of Pandrass, shells rain on the road. In Drass the brigade headquarters has sustained a hit. "We are going underground," says the local army commander. "Even the brigade headquarters is not safe." On Friday, the army closed the battle zone to media. Passes were cancelled.

The state of the Srinagar-Leh highway indicates the nature of the fix India is in. The road is a lifeline. Without it, supplying the garrisons in Kargil and Leh is nearly impossible, and this in turn brings a new peril. The army in Leh confronts Chinese troops occupying the 38,000 sq km of Aksai Chin, the high desert plateau seized by China during the 1962 war with India. Without road access to Leh, the Indian positions in northern Kashmir are vulnerable.

China has played no part in the new conflict, but East Asia's great power is a brooding presence in the dispute. A year ago China's reaction was fierce to India's nuclear tests and to gratuitous remarks by the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee and the Defence Minister George Fernandes, naming China as India's "main threat".

As India prepares for its general election, it is possible that China is contemplating teaching the bomb-loving nationalists of the BJP a lesson they will not forget. Ladakh, where India's lifeline is at risk and where Chinese troops are already strongly poised, could provide the perfect theatre.