One of the most common questions round northern Rajasthan is, of course, 'What do you think of the nuclear tests?' Regardless of my personal feelings on matters nuclear – which amount to an idealistic disgust at nuclear weapons, an intellectual fascination with sub-atomic physics, and a powerful appreciation of the shocking beauty of the mushroom cloud – I always answer in the positive, saying that I think it's fair enough that India has done its tests and that Pakistan has reacted with their own.
From a completely dispassionate viewpoint, the whole nuclear situation in the subcontinent is understandable. India and Pakistan are mortal enemies, and defence is a major concern; this issue wins elections, a fact not lost on the BJP government, which is exceedingly pro-Hindu and hence anti-Pakistan. It's obvious why Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee decided to run the tests, and Pakistan's reaction is utterly predictable.
Arguments about the ideological idiocy of nuclear weapons testing don't cut much ice with the Indians, and I understand why. I also feel that the West's reaction – sanctions and widespread condemnation – is not only misunderstanding the political situation here, but is hypocritical in the extreme. In 1995 France blew up bombs in the South Pacific, and they weren't put under sanctions outside of the voluntary boycotts of French wine in Australia and New Zealand (the former country being the source of the uranium used in the tests in the first place). Nobody in their right mind would welcome more nuclear bombs into the world, but why alienate the country concerned when you're penalising them for something that you've already done yourself?
My reaction, therefore, is this: doing the tests was fair enough, but if either country actually uses the weapons conceived, that is completely unforgivable. The Indians I meet generally agree with this, but they don't hold back when it comes to President Clinton; I've met Americans who say they're referred to as 'the enemy' by locals, and there's no invective spared when Indians talk about the good old US of A. England, on the other hand, has come out of it reasonably well, though I don't know why.
But the man in the street here has a fairly flimsy grasp on the facts. I passed through Pokaran, the site of the tests, on my way from Jaisalmer to Bikaner, and in both cities I discovered incredible ignorance. One young man in Bikaner, a medical student at the local college, claimed that the current heat wave was entirely due to the nuclear tests, and that in Jaisalmer the water had turned red because 'atoms go into the water' (but then again, he also told me that Hindi films were exactly like real life, so who's to say he was sane?). This is simply uninformed and illogical, especially coming from someone who studies elementary chemistry and physics as part of his course.
So perhaps the question should not be whether the nuclear tests are a good or a bad thing, but whether Indian democracy is effective. I trust the Indians, but I'm not sure I trust their government, and despite the free press and democratic semblance, a few fat and corrupt politicians in Delhi can play with atoms, bombs and buttons to their heart's content. That's the concern, but I can't very well tell that to the locals, can I?