Who Would Have Guessed?

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TIM McGIRK New DelhiIndia's George Fernandes may be the only defense minister of a nuclear power who hangs a picture of Hiroshima in his office. It's a familiar image: the skeletal dome standing above an ocean of destruction left by man's first nuclear storm. It stares Fernandes in the face every time he meets with his many-starred generals and his nuclear bomb-makers. And it was staring down on May 11-13 when India carried out the series of underground tests that shocked the world. I'd been a campaigner against nuclear weapons all my life, explains Fernandes. I was even against nuclear power. Such fervor had even led him to study for the Catholic priesthood, but he dropped out of a seminary in Bangalore when he decided organized religion was humbug.How did an old-time ban-the-bomber like Fernandes turn into an advocate of India's nuclear punch? With tremendous anguish, he says. I was breaking away from my convictions of almost five decades, but I felt that my country had to keep all of its security options open. His turnaround occurred two years ago, he says, when India was being strong-armed by the Clinton Administration to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. It became obvious to me that five countries in the world wanted to hold onto their nuclear power to dominate others, Fernandes recalls. They couldn't care less about what happened in the rest of the world.Fernandes' opinion didn't matter much back then. He was a political maverick whose leftist Samata Party had only six of 545 seats in the Indian parliament. And he never dreamed that India would explode the bomb while he led the nation's defense. But when the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) formed a coalition government last March, it needed support from Samata. Fernandes was rewarded with the post of Minister of Defense. The two parties were coming from radically opposite directions, but the Hindu nationalists and the socialist Fernandes agreed on India's need for an atomic bomb. Says he: Nobody can tell us what our security concerns should be.Fernandes has long confounded expectations. Military officers initially distrusted him, with ample reason. Throughout his life, he has had problems with authority. As a young man, Fernandes rebelled against church fathers, offended that teachers at his seminary feasted while the students ate swill. Later, as a Bombay labor organizer, he frequently found himself in jail after his strikers brawled with hired company thugs. In June 1976, during Indira Gandhi's emergency, Fernandes was thrown in prison for allegedly plotting to blow up railway bridges. That didn't stop him from becoming India's railways minister 13 years later. Earlier, as industries minister in the late '70s, he tangled with the multinationals, kicking Coca-Cola and IBM out of India. He has also been considered the patron saint of nearly lost causes: he backs the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, supports the Dalai Lama's return to Tibet and lets Burmese student refugees camp out in his cavernous government mansion.But he has won soldiers' respect for his honesty, administrative savvy and frugality--he himself uses just one room in the mansion for working, eating and sleeping. When bureaucrats were sluggish in sending snowmobiles to the 6,600-m-high battlezone at Siachen glacier, he helicoptered the officials to the area so they would experience the icy misery themselves. When Fernandes tours army operations, he shuns military pomp. He hitches rides with soldiers on army trucks and makes a point of eating the same things the rank-and-file are consuming. Even around his generals, he wears sandals and kurta pajamas that he washes himself, by hand.India's military brass has been equally impressed by Fernandes' outspoken criticism of perceived Chinese attempts to tighten the clamps on his country. While most politicians have avoided risking Beijing's ire, Fernandes has openly accused the Chinese of providing parts for Pakistan to build its missiles. He also has criticized the Chinese for strengthening their military might across the Himalayas in Tibet. Beijing finally protested last April after newspapers reported that Fernandes had called China India's Enemy No. 1. Fernandes says he regrets the remark. A TV interviewer wanted me to categorize the threat to India in the language of Bombay films: Hero No. 1, Villain No. 1. I replied I wouldn't say that, but that I'd say China is India's potential threat No. 1. What about Pakistan? I look at a Pakistani as the flesh of our flesh and the blood of our blood, says Fernandes. We are two different nations but one people.With Fernandes as Minister of Defense, India isn't likely to sign the test ban treaty. The rest of the world may complain, but Fernandes takes a loftier stance. India is in a better position [after its tests] to build up pressure to create a nuclear-free world, he says. For Fernandes, that photograph of Hiroshima is a reminder that he should stick to his guns--and his bomb.With reporting by Maseeh Rahman/New Delhi