Of course, the move is self-debilitating, as the plunge in the rupee and Indian share prices yesterday indicates. "Mad" (the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction) might have prevented the Cold War turning hot, but the Indian subcontinent is still a long way from that sort of unwinnable stalemate. Mad implies a second-strike capacity, the certainty that part of your stockpile will survive an initial attack. A country as poor as India should not be wasting resources on weapons that might only tempt a pre-emptive strike by an adversary; it is economic lunacy.
But who can blame India for acting as it has? You are the world's largest democracy, its second most populous country. But to the north-east you are bordered by an acknowledged nuclear power, China, which in 1962 handed you a stinging military defeat, and on the northwest by an undeclared one, Pakistan, against whom you have already fought three wars and whose nuclear programme has been helped along by none other than China.
If those aren't grounds for national insecurity, what is? Small wonder support for the tests inside India has been overwhelming. Economic lunacy, sadly, can sometimes be short-term political gold.
At least things are clearer now. India must henceforth be counted the sixth declared nuclear power. Quite possibly Pakistan will carry out one or more tests in retaliation, thus becoming the seventh. But suppose, as Delhi hinted yesterday, the two countries then announce they have completed their programmes and sign up to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, from which they are the principal absentees. Would the rest of us really be worse off than a week ago, when we could only guess at what has now been revealed?
Officially, of course, no one can admit as much, least of all the club of established nuclear powers. Bill Clinton has imposed sanctions on India, which he never did on fellow club-member China, while Britain proclaims its "shock and dismay" at Delhi's "flagrant disregard" of international opinion.
But India is only treading the path we took 40 years ago. Britain retains nuclear weapons because they are a ticket to the top table, permanent membership of the UN Security Council, and India is entitled to aspire to the same. If nuclear weapons are one reason Britain likes to think it "punches above its weight", a lack of them is one reason India believes it has never counted as it should in world affairs.
Once again, we come to the flaw at the heart of the non-proliferation argument. By what absolute right do Britain, France, the US, Russia and China insist that they alone should possess nuclear weapons? If they really want to persuade others not to develop them, they should travel faster and further down that road themselves.
In fact, arms reduction talks between the US and Russia, who together possess more than 90 per cent of the world's nuclear arsenal, are at a standstill, while our own defence planners refuse even to examine the future of Britain's strategic deterrent. With that sort of example, India is understandably not inclined to take lessons.Reuse content