It is to correct the accumulation of such perceptions, which have lodged stubbornly in non-Indian minds for a hundred years and more, that India last week exploded five nuclear devices under the desert of Rajasthan. Not the only reason, of course; not the main reason; not a good reason; but the reason that inspired so much of last week's jubilant Indian rhetoric, that was written in the faces of all those ladies in saris jumping for joy in the streets of New Delhi. The world would have to take India seriously now (and it will).
"India has arrived on the threshold of superpower status, literally with a bang," said an editorial in the Delhi newspaper, the Pioneer. There would be repercussions: international condemnation, sanctions, a renewed arms race with Pakistan, a return to the old hostile relationship with China. But all this would be worthwhile, wrote the Pioneer, if the nuclear tests forced the rest of the world to abandon its view of India as "a wounded civilisation, incapable of dealing with itself, leave alone others".
Many other statements from Indian bureaucrats and politicians echoed this argument. On Wednesday, after India added two more explosions to the three on Monday, the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, said: "This says we will do what we want to do. We don't bother about threats. The news of the day is, 'India defies world opinion'."
No particularly deep examination of that statement is needed to reveal the feelings behind it: a demand for attention - almost childish - which might be satisfied by behaving badly. Achin Vanaik, a writer on modern India and a rare anti-nuclear voice there, said the tests were India's way of saying that after 50 years of independence too many people in India feel that India has not made it. India, said Vanaik, had not been listened to or respected internationally and hadn't had the economic miracle of China. Neither the tests nor the rhetoric, he said, were the reflection of a mature, confident or relaxed nationalism.
It would be easy to ascribe this to one among many strands of Indian politics. Mr Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata [Indian People's] Party, the BJP, has as its central belief the idea that the Hinduism of the majority needs to reassert itself politically, after centuries of torpor under the Mogul empire, British colonialism, and (latterly) the secular ideology of Gandhi, Nehru and their successors in the Congress party. The coalition government, only two months old, is as shaky as all recent Indian governments have tended to be. India as an avowedly nuclear power fits perfectly with BJP philosophy; nuclear tests could be seen simply as a populist political manoeuvre.
The fact is, however, that they are popular. No opposition party in India would now dare raise its voice against them, or the nuclear missile programme that will probably follow. Sanctions - an end to aid from the US and Japan, uncertainty over further loans from the World Bank - may only further the sense of popular embattlement.
Why does India feel so insecure? For a complex mixture of reasons which is not at all easy to disentangle. On the one hand, India has a remarkable sensitivity to external perceptions: the phrase "wounded civilisation" in the Pioneer's editorial comes from the title of a book by VS Naipaul, written all of 23 years ago, which offered a gloomy diagnosis of the country. On the other hand, this sensitivity is not always misplaced. India has changed dramatically in the past decade and not enough people - perhaps particularly Washington and Wall Street people - have noticed.
HERE are some facts about India. It is the most populous country in the world after China, and in the next 20 years will overtake China to become the most populous. Since 1991 it has managed a radical programme of economic liberalisation without any large social upheaval, to give it a new, moneyed, consuming class variously estimated at between 100 million and 200 million people, or between a tenth and a fifth of the total population, more consumers than are contained in any single European country. This class can watch 40 satellite channels, choose from a dozen different brands of automobile, buy Reeboks in the shopping malls which have spread from Delhi and Bombay to provincial towns. None of this was possible 10 years ago. India has joined the mainstream of global consumption and culture, and no government can separate India from it again even if a government wanted to.
Like China, India has cheap wages and low manufacturing costs. Like China, it has clever, skilful people; Bill Gates (no less) is reputed to have said that south Indians are the world's smartest people after the Chinese. But unlike China, India's administration, commerce and media operate chiefly in the English language; one of the reasons that India has become so prominent in the software industry. Unlike China, it is a supple, decentralised democracy rather than a rigid, centralised autocracy. China, however, continues to attract 20 times India's level of foreign investment, partly because business prefers the apparent stability and ruthlessness of autocracies (even of the Chinese Communist Party) and partly because American foreign policy suggests that China is the safer bet. Last week, as President Clinton formally ordered sanctions against India, another, largely forgotten American voice wondered about the wisdom of this reaction. Newt Gingrich, the House speaker, said he was curious about this one-side imbalance, this anti- Indian bias and this willingness to forgive the Chinese anything.
This is certainly how India sees it. How, after all, did China achieve its status as a fully fledged member of the nuclear club (all five with seats at the UN Security Council)? By conducting 44 nuclear tests, the last two in 1996, and then signing up to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and endorsing the Comprehensive Test Ban. Why shouldn't India be allowed to do the same? And especially so since India perceives China as not just an economic rival but, directly and indirectly, a threat to its status as the dominant military power in South Asia. China has helped arm Pakistan, India's old enemy, with missiles. The US is still also an ally of Pakistan. India maintained the balance of this eastern extension of the Cold War with the support of the Soviet Union. But the Cold War is over and the Soviet Union has vanished. We now live in a uni-polar world, but that one pole in Washington favours Beijing above Delhi, despite the fact that India has abandoned its socialist non-aligned aspirations which made Washington so suspicious.
India might be forgiven for feeling isolated in these circumstances, and that American neglect of it goes far beyond the CIA's surprising inability to detect India's preparations for Monday's explosions (though this last may exemplify the first). President Clinton seemed almost to recognise this neglect when he said that he agreed with many Indians that their country was under-appreciated - hoping, at the same time, that India would realise that it was a terrible mistake to use nuclear testing as a way to earn respect.
BUT, foreign investment and the strategists of Washington apart, can it really be true that by any other objective standard India is under- appreciated? Not, it would seem, by the Western media, who have more correspondents there than ever before; nor by British and American publishers, for whom Indian writing has been a persistent and sometimes commercially successful cult since Salman Rushdie published Midnight's Children nearly 20 years ago; nor by the fashion industry, which has swiped everything from the Nehru jacket to the salwar-kameez. In each of these areas, however, the main attraction may be the exotic. Writing about Indian difference - pickle factories, holy men, caste conflict - has more charm for us than depicting the ways in which Indians, increasingly, are like ourselves.
Last year, in Granta magazine's India issue, the writer Trevor Fishlock described an encounter with an ordinary member of the middle class in Gujarat. Talking about India's future, this man tells him: "We are taxi- ing on the runway. We will leave America behind. Nothing will stop us becoming the greatest economic power in the world." That prediction looks fantastical: in 1994 the Indian national income was $279 per person compared to $23,000 per person in the US. But the ambition behind it can seem real enough in India now, and people who ignore it tend to come a cropper. It was a mistake, for example, for Robin Cook to have visited Pakistan before India when he went with the Queen on last year's tour, and a further mistake by his party (in terms of realpolitik if not ethics) to have allowed a grain of pro-Kashmiri rhetoric, picked up in some Muslim-dominated Labour constituencies, to get embedded in what India saw as Labour's foreign policy. India set out to humiliate him - the Queen seems to have been an accidental casualty - and it did.
This isn't attractive. There is something hateful about it. India may not be the innately gentle society it is sometimes mistaken for (Mahatma Gandhi, Mrs Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi - all assassinated), but, as large and powerful countries go, its reputation has been subtle and benign. Henry Kissinger called this reputation humbug, and writers such as Nirad Chaudhuri have been forever warning that Hinduism, contrary to the merciful Christian gloss put on it by Gandhi, has a dark and violent centre. "I am become death, the shatterer of worlds," Krishna tells the prince in the Bhagavad Gita; words that Robert Oppenheimer remembered when he saw the first test of his creation in 1945.
Last week's tests - another desert at another time - have shredded the last illusions about Indian passivity, as they were intended to. Soon, unless American will prevails, Pakistan will conduct a few of its own. And after that, there could be two lines of nuclear-tipped missiles facing each other. On the Indian side, those named after the Hindu emperor, Prithvi. On the Pakistani side, those named after the Muslim warrior, Ghauri, who slew him. Behind each line, two states locked into the apparently insoluble problem of Kashmir, run by jittery governments kept in power by their appeals to different popular nationalisms.
It needn't be so. In the new issue of Survival, the magazine of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, there is a timely piece titled "Taking India seriously" which addresses the question of why China receives so much more international attention than India. The authors, James Manor and Gerald Segal, argue that this will change when foreign investment begins to favour the Indian market, as it will. "With a growing business lobby in the West favouring good relations with India, the relative absence of disputes over Indian human rights and arms exports, and no international anxiety about the country's desires to seize neighbouring territory, much closer Western relations with India than with China seem quite possible. Disputes between India and the developed world about nuclear-weapons policy might become as inoffensive as current attitudes towards Israel's clandestine nuclear arsenal ... And as China grows more militarily formidable, there might well be a greater coincidence of interests between India and Western powers in thinking about a more effective balance of power to manage Beijing."
That, of course, was written before last Monday. A more realistic assessment might be the letter an Indian writer friend faxed to me on Friday. She wrote: "I haven't seen a single newspaper editorial that is condemnatory, and only one that is mildly cautious. Generally, the tone is laudatory ... It is disgusting, tragic. I can't believe this, that there can be so much conservatism, so much blindness about what sanctions will do ... The trouble is, of course, as with everything these days, that there are no moral rights and wrongs any more, none that are not ambivalent. So the posturing of America is equally disgusting, and equally fraudulent. But that doesn't make ours any better - anyway, I guess this is the shape of things to come."
FIFTEEN years ago in Calcutta I asked a question about India's bomb. It was at the home of one of India's leading nuclear scientists. He was a nice man, who smoked a pipe and kept our glasses of rum and water topped up. There were three of us - the third was the then editor of the Spectator, Alexander Chancellor - and it was late at night and perhaps we were all a little drunk. There was a power-cut - "load-shedding", as they say in India, then a regular happening - and we were talking in candlelight about this and that.
I asked: "Well, does India have the bomb or not?" Alexander took up the pursuit. "Yes, does it or doesn't it?" Our host looked pained at our bluntness. He turned to Alexander. "Come, come," he said, "we're both Cambridge men." The matter was dropped. That kind of India has not completely gone, but it is going very fast.
Ian Jack is Editor of 'Granta'.