IF HARSH sanctions are in order when the world's largest democracy beefs up its nuclear arsenal, why not when the world's largest dictatorship does so?
India's five nuclear explosions last week were severely denounced by President Clinton, who compared them to "the very worst events of the 20th century" and announced a variety of economic punishments. Yet Clinton has never seen fit to chastise China, which over the years has conducted not five but 45 nuclear tests, and which has not merely tested nuclear missiles but deployed them.
India's entry into the nuclear club may, paradoxically, make the subcontinent safer.
India is guilty of proliferating H-bombs only to itself; China has exported nuclear weapons technology to Pakistan and Iran, and has sold missile components to Syria, Libya, and Iraq. A US government report identifies China as the world's "principal supplier of weapons of mass destruction." If we are going to make pariahs out of nuclear-weapons states, China should head the list.
Ah, but China has a special hold on the Clinton administration. The Beijing dictatorship, we now know, was a key source of money for the Democratic Party and the Clinton-Gore campaign. Chinese militarism may threaten US security interests in Asia, but this White House takes care of its friends. Not only has Clinton not condemned Beijing's nuclear proliferation, he has promoted it: Recently, he approved the export of Loral guidance systems able to improve the accuracy of China's nuclear missiles. Loral's chairman, it so happens, was the single largest contributor to the Democratic Party last year. This is how foreign policy is made in the Clinton administration.
Does anyone imagine that India would now be in the doghouse if it, too, had bought its way into the president's good graces?
Meanwhile, for all the sound and fury, it isn't clear that India deserves the excoriation it has received.
For starters, it was no secret that India intended to upgrade its membership in the nuclear club. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which leads India's coalition government, has advocated nuclear arms for years. In March, the BJP party platform declared bluntly: "We will take all necessary steps and exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons." The White House and the CIA may have been clueless, but as Senator Daniel P. Moynihan, a former US ambassador to India, noted, anyone who merely perused New Delhi's English-language newspapers would have known what was coming.
India has violated no treaty. It is not a party to the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Its fears of China — which the Indian defense minister calls "Threat No. 1" — are not fanciful. Its 50-year war with Pakistan, sometimes cold, sometimes hot, is not likely to resolve soon. India is a vast country with vivid security nightmares. In a world where Saddam Hussein can repeatedly jab a thumb in Washington's eye with impunity, and where NATO permits the worst Bosnian war criminals to roam unmolested, how plausible is it to expect India to keep putting its faith in America's nuclear umbrella?
It isn't obvious that the explosions in India's Thar desert last week make the world a more dangerous place. On the contrary, they may prove stabilizing, especially if Pakistan tests its own nuclear weaponry. A nuclear subcontinent, safer? Yes — for knowing the devastation an atomic attack would cause, and knowing the devastation it would invite, India and Pakistan will have more incentive than ever to avoid starting a war. For 50 years the United States and the USSR fought a Cold War that never went nuclear. Mutual Assured Destruction, however MAD, can keep the peace.
What is far more alarming than the tests themselves is the giddy reaction of the Indian public. Mature nations do not whoop it up because their army has perfected The Bomb. Delirious jingoism is not what the world expects from adult members of the nuclear club. Indians should be seizing this moment to project an image of sobriety and responsibility. Instead they are showering their leaders with rose petals and dancing in the streets. The US-led rush to castigate New Delhi, by adding to the frenzy of Indian patriotism, is only making things worse.
It is hard to separate the pro-bomb euphoria from the fierce Hindu nationalism of the government. As it is, the BJP's motives are distrusted by many, especially India's large Muslim minority. The ruling party has fashioned its appeal, in part, out of anti-Muslim bigotry; in a terrible incident in 1992, it whipped up the passions of a Hindu mob that tore down an ancient mosque in Ayodhya.
Now there are fears that the BJP, riding the wave of popularity generated by the nuclear tests, will move to trammel the civil rights of Muslims and other non-Hindus.
That would trigger another kind of explosion. There are more than 100 million Muslims in India, a population almost the size of Pakistan. What they need from their government is calm reassurance. What they are getting instead is Hindu chauvinism and potvaliant defiance.
The real danger of last week's tests is not an India-Pakistan nuclear war. It is a Hindu-Muslim civil war. Nothing is more urgent right now than turning down the volume - not hurling curses at India's head.
If President Clinton wants to be useful, he can employ his famous empathy to calm the euphoria of India's nationalists. And he can remind the world's second-biggest nation that while democracy is wonderful, it is nothing if it doesn't contain tolerance for others.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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