It took just seconds to pitch the world’s nuclear mind-set back more than a decade. In a defiant display of nationalism, India set off three simultaneous blasts—one a hydrogen bomb—deep beneath the northwestern Pokhran desert near the border with Pakistan. It took 20 minutes more for the seismic waves to retreat into the earth’s crust. But it will take much longer to pull the international community out of the chillingly familiar Cold War atmosphere that immediately took hold. In a calculated imitation of U.S. presidential style, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee crisply announced his nation’s first test since 1974 from a lectern on the lawn of his official residence, the flag of India fluttering behind him. After less than two months in office, top members of his Hindu nationalist-led government bragged that India is now a “global player,” and Indians themselves responded with a gush of pride that bordered on euphoria.
But a host of other nations—including Canada—rushed forward with condemnations and sanctions. Unmoved by the outcry, India set off two more blasts two days later, intent on barging into the select club of nations that possess battle-ready nuclear weapons.
As the shock waves rolled across the world,
India’s rival, Pakistan, accused New Delhi of “going berserk” and began to prepare for its own tests—possibly this week—to further a program that has long been backed by China. The CIA came under fire for failing to alert President Bill Clinton that a nuclear blast was coming. Critics blamed Canada again, as they did in 1974, for providing crucial technology in the form of Canadian-built reactors.
And suddenly there was talk of a new nuclear arms race. Proliferation. Deterrence. Satellite states. Wasn’t all of that supposed to have dissolved with the Soviet Union in 1991? Especially because France, China, the United States, Russia and Britain signed the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty in 1996, India’s move came as a dismaying surprise. “The nuclear powers had stopped producing plutonium and were dismantling weapons,” said Gordon Edwards, head of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility. “Since the dawn of the nuclear age, we had never been closer to achieving
a nuclear weapons-free world.” Now, there are fears that other developing countries, such as Iran, may step up their attempts to get The Bomb.
‘We are now a nuclear-weapons state,” Vajpayee declared. That claim may be a touch premature, since India is still working on a reliable delivery system. But Pentagon experts predict that by the end of next year, both India and Pakistan will have the technical ability to aim nucleartipped missiles at most of each other’s major cities, making the region the most volatile on earth. “It’s now more dangerous than the Middle East,” said one Pentagon official. Of even greater concern is the possibility that China will restart its own testing. “Once the Indians deploy the intermediate-range missiles they are developing, they will have the capability to lob nuclear warheads over the Himalayas and then ‘Boom!’ The Chinese are going to be extremely worried,” said James Przystup, Asian affairs analyst at
the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. “Now, India has a nuclear deterrent that enables them to look China in the face.” As the gravity of India’s action became clear, Ottawa joined several other Western nations in recalling its ambassador, cancelled all non-humanitarian aid—about half the $29-million-a-year aid allocation—and banned military trade. But it stopped short of the $28 billion worth of sanctions imposed by Clinton, who slashed aid, halted military sales and cut off all U.S. credit to India, including bank loans. He also promised to push the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to withhold future support. Japan,
India’s largest donor and the only country to suffer a nuclear attack, cancelled $40 million in grants and suspended new loans. But Vajpayee remained in a festive mood, buoyed by a finance ministry study that touted “little possibility” of an all-out economic embargo now that foreigners—including powerful Western banks—have invested so heavily in India. “Even though we hope the sanctions will not be too strong, we are prepared to face them,” the prime minister’s political adviser, Pramod Mahajan, told Maclean’s. “India and its economy run on their own. We have the necessary resilience.”
By the weekend, his assessment was coming true. Both the rupee and the Bombay stock market had rebounded. And at their annual summit in Birmingham, England, leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized nations and Russia did not agree to a Canada-U.S. suggestion of a unified set of sanctions. European members, with their own heavy investments on the subcontinent, opposed the move.
Certainly Canada’s $1 billion in trade with India seemed unlikely to face major restrictions. Edwards accused Ottawa of hypocrisy that goes beyond protecting trade. As a member of NATO, he noted, Canada follows a policy—sometimes called “nuclear apartheid”— that allows Western powers to have the bomb while denying it to less developed countries. Ostensibly to protest the refusal of the five major nuclear powers to abolish all nuclear weapons, India had refused to sign the test-ban agreement. Last week, Vajpayee reopened the door to signing, but repeated India’s vow not to abandon its nuclear option until the rest of world does as well.
It was also Canada’s gift of a CIRUS reactor in 1956 that first gave India the know-how to detonate its 1974 bomb. India bought two CANDU reactors in the next decade. Canada ended its nuclear co-operation with India after the 1974 test, and Prime Minister Jean Chrétien last week insisted that Canada held no responsibility for the latest explosions because “the technology of 1974 is completely passé.” Edwards, however, disagreed. “Without the CANDU technology they would not have tritium, which you need for an H-bomb,” he said. “Whenever we sell a nuclear reactor, we’re selling a machine that produces tritium and plutonium, which you need for an A-bomb. CANDU is the only one on the market which does both.”
Americans were meanwhile agonizing over the failure of U.S. intelligence to predict India’s initial tests. Spy satellites picked up greatly increased activity around the site in the week before the blasts, according to a senior Senate intelligence committee source. But CIA analysts were “lulled into complacency,” he said, by assurances from the Indian government that it was doing a six-month review of its nuclear policy, during which nothing would happen.
Had Clinton known, analysts doubt he could have dissuaded Vajpayee from detonating. New Delhi felt provoked by Pakistani ballistic missile tests last month. Moreover, Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes, who calls China “potential threat number 1,” recently claimed that Beijing has put nuclear weapons in nearby Tibet, although U.S. intelligence has no evidence of this.
Still, last week’s blasts were clearly fuelled as much by domestic considerations as external threats. Bogged down in the politics of a 20-party coalition, Vajpayee’s administration needed a dramatic gesture. “It was being called a government that can’t work,” said a senior member of Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata party. ‘We had to do something to show it meant business.” The payoff was huge. “Explosion of self-esteem,” trumpeted a headline in The Pioneer newspaper. A Times of India poll put public approval of the tests at more than 90 per cent. “This is a great moment for us,” said Gurdial Singh, a Delhi businessman. “If we have the power, why not show it?”
By week’s end, Clinton had sent a special team to try to dissuade Pakistan from going ahead with its tests. But officials in Pakistan— where prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto once said the country’s citizens would “eat grass” in order to be on nuclear par with India— called New Delhi’s action just short of a declaration of war and insisted they would respond in kind. As a new arms race began, the post-Cold War world suddenly seemed a more dangerous place.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.