Rupee falls but PM's popularity goes nuclear

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The Independent Online
SOBERING slightly from its intoxicating bash at being a superpower - five underground nuclear tests conducted in three days - India yesterday began counting the cost of its new rulers' recklessness.

The rupee fell to an all-time low against the dollar and business confronted the implications of losing $21bn (pounds 13.5bn) of American money, through sanctions, to an economy already deeply stuck in recession. To restore the momentum which drove the economy to unprecedented successes in the past seven years would in any case have taken a concerted government assault on the many remaining areas of stagnation and backwardness. Now it will take a miracle.

The government, however, was still flying on a potent cocktail of international outrage and domestic satisfaction, and prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee decided to take another swig. In an interview with India Today, a weekly news magazine, he confirmed that "India now has a big bomb and is now a nuclear weapons state". He added: "We will not hesitate to use the bomb in self-defence."

Mr Vajpayee did not clarify whether he meant defence against nuclear or conventional attack. Warming to his theme, he went on: "There is no question of India signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty [CTBT]. Command and control systems [for the nuclear weapons] are in place. The bomb is not intended for peaceful purposes. Celebrations are being organised up and down the country."

The prime minister's main objective appeared to be to continue moving the domestic political goalposts and thereby keep his opponents on the hop. All the major opposition parties have now endorsed the BJP-led government's stunning initiative, which provoked a euphoric reaction, at least among the urban middle class who had some inkling of what it was all about. On Thursday the Congress Party, which had been in two minds about how to react, finally bowed to the popular mood when Sonia Gandhi declared that "the nuclear question is a national matter, not a partisan one. On this every Indian stands united".

Congress took pride in the fact that successive Congress governments had ensured, she went on, "that the country's nuclear capability remains up-to-date, so that our security is not compromised".

But Mr Vajpayee's party, the BJP, is an extremist party, and now that it has discovered how to drag the rest of the political class rightwards it cannot get enough of it. The so-called "ambiguists", the soggy middle of Indian politics, were content until Monday's explosions with the status quo, whereby India possessed nuclear weapons but neither owned up nor tested them. But on Tuesday they woke up to find that their comfortably fuzzy political terrain had disappeared. Either they could sign up to the hard line of the BJP, or do the unthinkable and join the invisibly small rump of the antis.

Now Mr Vajpayee has chosen to squeeze them some more. Optimists among the former ambiguists had their fingers crossed that Monday's tests would lead speedily to India's signing the CTBT, which India has long denounced as a fraud and a trap. Wednesday's second-round of tests, carried out full in the teeth of international fury, made that much less likely. Now Mr Vajpayee appears to have hit the idea on the head once and for all. His opponents must either follow him to the cliff edge, or retreat to a middle ground that no longer exists.

The recklessness of the BJP government is all the more remarkable considering it is a minority government which only barely scrapes a majority in parliament thanks to the abstention of a key regional party. But a leader of the RSS, the patriotic paramilitary force which is the sinister parent body of the BJP (and which is believed to have had prior knowledge of the tests), revealed on Thursday that in 1996, the only previous occasion that the BJP held power, they were only prevented from carrying out nuclear tests when the United States got wind of their intentions and managed to contrive that they lost a crucial confidence vote in parliament. They were thus knocked out of power after a mere 13 days.

Meanwhile, in Islamabad speculation was rife that Pakistan would carry out nuclear tests of its own within a couple of days. To try to deflect the Pakistan government from this course of action, a high-level American delegation yesterday flew into the capital for talks.

Diplomatic sources said Pakistan should be able to extract a good price for exercising restraint, perhaps even securing the delivery of F16 fighter planes purchased from America 10 years ago which never arrived. However, the pressures on prime minister Nawaz Sharif to pick up the Indian gauntlet were intense. It is doubtful whether he will be able to withstand them.