With the formal announcement earlier this week to veto the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), India has finally stymied two years of negotiations and given notice that it meant business when it opposed the treaty which it calls flawed.
India has rejected cajoling, pleas and even veiled threats from nuclear powers and stood its ground arguing that the treaty is meaningless because it does not freeze nuclear development. Some critics have suggested that India's posture is designed to keep its nuclear options open, but India has categorically said that signing the treaty would not have meant that India would have had to foreclose its options. In any case, after its peaceful nuclear implosion in 1973, India has not gone in for a test, while many of the other nuclear states have conducted scores of tests in defiance of worldwide disapproval.
China exploded a test bomb two days before the talks were to resume in Geneva last month and then announced that its objectives had been met. For India, which lost a war with China in 1962 and has had a less than warm relationship with China, the test further served to harden its stand. The treaty, said Indian Foreign Minister I K Gujral in an interview, stopped "horizontal growth of nuclear weapons but not vertical growth."
China is key to understanding why India, which had been all along a votary of a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing, did not succumb to intense diplomatic pressure and sign the treaty.
The 1962 war, which came as a shock to Jawaharlal Nehru and his security establishment, not only psychologically damaged India but also changed security perceptions completely. Subsequently, India has seen the development of a stronger defense relationship between China and Pakistan, assistance to Indian insurgents in the sensitive north-east and support to ultra left groups during the Mao regime. China is determined to position itself as the key power in Asia which sends shivers down the collective spines of small south-east Asian states.
India too is acutely conscious of Chinese ambitions and with its declared nuclear status and its active participation in the nuclear program of Pakistan, another state hostile to India, there is no way that any government in this country can afford to be somnolent about the security threat.
Some commentators, including in India, have argued that the determination to keep nuclear options open stem from a perception that nuclear weapons are a currency of power. But Indian public opinion views China as a country that is taken seriously on the world stage mainly, if not only because of its nuclear might. Both countries have a large market, making them attractive to foreign investors-but despite having a glorious record of democracy as opposed to the brutal dictatorship in China, India feels it is not given due status and prestige simply because it has no nuisance value in the shape of nuclear weapons.
The approach of the Americans has further hardened attitudes in India, which believes that domestic political issues during the election year are behind the continuous pressure on India to sign the treaty. The Clinton administration, which made soothing noises in one on one meetings with Indian officials during the ASEAN but took a harder line subsequently, is now said to be planning a campaign to take the treaty to the UN general assembly. The treaty could pass by majority vote, but while that will isolate India it cannot force it to join.
Domestic political compulsions of a weak coalition government in India have also played a role, albeit a small one, in fine-tuning India's stand in Geneva. But while the Indian government cannot afford to override its political rivals, there is a surprising amount of public consensus on the issue, which has now become one of national pride.
Indeed, India's earlier self-doubt about its isolation has turned into a steely resolve as it has become clear that many other countries-including neighboring Pakistan-have admired its independence and confidence. Influential opposition leaders in Pakistan, where the Prime Minister is under severe political attack, have publicly admired India's stand and compared it unfavorably to Pakistan's succumbing to western pressure.
Within India, there is a growing consciousness of its emerging status as an economic power which should now start demonstrating that it has military power too. There has long been a demand for a blue water navy and though as a country India has never adopted a hawkish line, the new economic confidence could persuade future governments to at least have a military machine in keeping with its new found muscle.
In these circumstances, foregoing a nuclear option so completely, with not even a visible bomb in hand would be suicidal. No one seriously believes that economic sanctions will follow now-but even if there are hostile noises from the superpowers, they will only serve to make India even more stubborn on the issue.
Sidharth Bhatia is a senior Indian journalist who runs a well known television
program on Indian business and current affairs. A former newspaper editor
and foreign correspondent, Bhatia has written for several publications in
India and abroad.