Pakistan weighs cost of avenging nuclear blast

Click to follow
The Independent Online
MY KARACHI taxi driver had just finished lambasting the driver of the large, spanking new BMW in front, one of those crooks in the army, he supposed, who grew rich by stealing from the population at large, when I asked him about India's nuclear test.

"India had five tamashas," he said without a pause. "We must have six tamashas and we must have them now!" A tamasha, on both sides of the Indo- Pakistani border, means a bravura display, a dazzling exhibition.

It is in these sorts of terms of sibling rivalry that India's nuclear coup and the appropriate Pakistani response are discussed.

When enemies are as intimately close and entwined in their histories as India and Pakistan, there is something deeply childish about it - though no less dangerous for all that.

More sophisticated voices take a more sombre line. A shop assistant in Islamabad said: "We must have a test. We only need one to block India. But we must have one."

There is, at times like this, an acute sense here of Pakistan being about one tenth the size of India, and the loser in each of the three post-independence wars.

Yet the dilemma for the Pakistan government is that it is at least as vulnerable economically as militarily. India can with some degree of plausibility shrug off the sanctions imposed by the US and Japan. As one journalist writing in the Sunday Times of India put it cold-bloodedly: "It does not matter... if the anti-polio campaign is slowed down for at least a year. After all, future polio victims will be blaming their fate on karma, not on the political leadership of India or Japan."

Pakistan, by contrast, confronts an ugly choice. It has negligible foreign reserves, and this year needs $4.5bn to meet its current account deficit. The sanctions that a nuclear test would automatically trigger would in turn precipitate a grave financial crisis. That is the world's only hope in persuading Pakistan not to do it.

But Pakistani opinion at the highest level is that the decision to test has already been taken, and it is no longer a matter of whether but of when. Sources close to Nawaz Sharif's government say that a Cabinet meeting on Sunday decided unanimously to support the decision to test, not even excepting the Minister of Finance. But preparations could take a month.

In the meantime, the official line is that a decision has not been reached, and that a national consensus must be obtained first. Government spokesmen strive to give the impression that their minds are open on the subject. Addressing a meeting of party workers in Lahore on Sunday, Prime Minister Sharif said: "The real thing is the possession of the capability. It is not necessary that it should be shown. Pakistan was in a position to demonstrate its capability twenty years ago, and it can demonstrate it today."

He went on to draw a distinction between India's "weak and unstable government", whose weakness had prompted it to carry out the tests, and the stability of Pakistan, where Mr Sharif rules with a huge majority.

His stability is, of course, aided by the absence of Benazir Bhutto, the leader of the Opposition, who is expected to be arrested on embezzlement charges if and when she returns to Pakistan from London. "BB" - as she is universally known - has been causing as much mischief as possible from the sidelines, urging the bombing of India's nuclear facilities and telling a Saudi newspaper that if Pakistan failed to respond in kind to the Indian test, India would launch a ground war in the disputed territory of Kashmir.

This is a possibility that is also being raised in India: it is suggested that the government may well be in a mood to score another triumph in the state where 600,000 Indian troops are stationed to control Pakistan and Afghan sponsored insurgency.

Among the triumphalism and paranoia a note of awful realism occasionally raises a small voice. On Sunday an Indian newspaper reported that more than a dozen people from the village of Khetolai, near the Indian test site, had reported symptoms of radiation sickness, including nose bleeds, loss of appetite and skin and eye irritation. Khetolai is one of several villages dotted around the nuclear site at Pokhran. India is currently demonstrating that the wellbeing of these peasants should be a very low priority.