Leading Article: Big fuss over a small bomb

THE POLITICAL shockwaves generated by India's unexpected series of nuclear tests this week have spread rather wider than the physical ones. President Bill Clinton has called the tests an "irresponsible act". The G8 leaders have expressed their concerns and imposed economic sanctions. Of course, no one can be in favour of the indiscriminate spread of nuclear weapons technology. Many sane people would even like to try to put the atomic genie back in the bottle. But there is more than a little hypocrisy about some of the criticisms now being voiced about India. How can existing nuclear powers, well represented in the G8, be so sniffy about India's actions, when all that she has done is to follow the policy of nuclear deterrence, which was responsible for 40 years of peace and security in Europe after the Second World War? In any case, these particular tests, modest by the standards of the nuclear club, may yet result in an equilibrium between the powers in the region.

It is worth understanding how the small scale of these exercises made them especially powerful in their political and strategic messages. It is harder to make a small weapon than a large one, and miniaturised warheads can be more potent, as they are easier to deliver. The engineering of such small test heads indicates a high degree of technical skill and sophistication. India can assemble about 60 of these warheads and could deliver them from aircraft or missiles. They can reach China from northern India, or Pakistan from the southern part of the country. They represent an enormous boost to Indian security.

Let us be clear, though, that another reason for the tests is the fillip that they give to the ruling BJP, which gained a narrow majority in February's elections. The BJP is committed to Indian nationalism and self-sufficiency, and nuclear weapons are both symbol and substance of India's status as a regional superpower. "Don't push India around" is a message as unpalatable to India's neighbours as it is popular with her voters.

Menacing though the exercise of her destructive potential may have been, however, India has not invaded a neighbouring country or inflicted human rights abuses on her own people. She retains the distinction of being the largest democracy on earth. Neither has she breached international law. She has not yet signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The tests could be the prelude to her signing the CTBT - as it was for China. And Pakistan has said that if India signs the treaty, it will too. This crisis may be defused remarkably quickly.