In the mid-1980s, Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Raja Ramanna and Army Chief Krishnaswami Sundarji often discussed a future India with nuclear weapons. For General Sundarji, the idea of an Indian bomb that could neutralise conventional Chinese military superiority was attractive. Dr Ramanna saw the bomb more as an enabler and equaliser — a weapon not necessarily intended for use, but the threat of whose use could achieve political and military goals.
As India’s conventional military strength improved, the considerations that drove Gen Sundarji’s line of thinking became increasingly less compelling. By the second half of the 1990s, defence analyst K Subrahmanyam could present Ramanna’s ideas to A B Vajpayee, a longtime advocate of nuclear weapons to ensure a peaceful Indian subcontinent.
This anecdote from former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon’s 2016 book, Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, offers a clear and apt understanding of why India needed to conduct five nuclear tests at Pokhran over two days — May 11 and May 13 — 20 years ago. Over the last two decades, India has more or less achieved the strategic goals that the nuclear tests set their sights on.
But the road has not been smooth.
Several global powers reacted to Pokhran-II with fury; however, the permanent members of the UN Security Council were divided. The US, China, and the UK were critical of India’s nuclear tests, but Russia and France — and even Britain — were not in favour of sanctions. Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, and Sweden joined the Americans in imposing sanctions.
Opinion | Test and effect
But India’s diplomatic leadership, especially Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh and National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra, were able to exploit the divisions in the international community to take India out of the winter.
President Bill Clinton, as security studies expert Rudra Chaudhuri says in his Forged in Crisis: India and the United States since 1947, “soon came to accept that the tests had been largely inevitable”. By the late 1990s, notes Menon in Choices, India was faced with a situation in which two neighbours with whom it had fought wars, Pakistan and China, already had nuclear weapons, and were working together to build their capabilities and proliferate them in Asia. By conducting the tests, India was able to insulate itself from nuclear threats and blackmail.
More importantly, New Delhi declared that it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons against other countries. But if nuclear weapons were used against India, it would retaliate, and inflict unacceptable pain on the adversary. This nuclear weapons doctrine has since become the cornerstone of India’s diplomatic, military and political policy in the international arena.
“The nuclear tests in May 1998 may have retarded India’s relationship with the US and the West somewhat, but by the turn of the century, its relations with the US and the West had begun to crystallise into a mutually beneficial and substantive relationship,” former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran wrote in his book, How India Sees the World.
The rapprochement with the US began as early as on June 12, 1998, with the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott talks — 14 rounds in 10 locations in seven countries (Chaudhuri, Forged in Crisis) — and went on to culminate in the Indo-US nuclear deal (between 2005 and 2008). The waiver at the Nuclear Suppliers Group in September 2008, pushed by the US and the entire western world, including those who had advocated sanctions after Pokhran-II, was a clear testament to New Delhi’s strategic calculation having been spot-on.
“Just seven years after India’s nuclear tests, which the US had roundly condemned, it was not only recognising India’s de facto status as a nuclear weapons state but was ready to overturn the non-proliferation regime to enable India to participate in international civil nuclear energy commerce,” Saran, who was the PM’s Special Envoy on the Indo-US nuclear deal, wrote in How India Sees the World.
India is now a member of three out of four multilateral export control regimes — MTCR, Wassenaar Arrangement, Australia Group — and is in the reckoning for membership of the NSG. Pokhran-II gave India the strategic space to manoeuvre at the world stage, and to showcase its international behaviour on the rules-based system, even without being part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The adherence to the non-proliferation regime has improved its international standing over the past two decades. Before its JCPOA (nuclear deal) negotiations with the P5+1+EU, Iran would often cite India as an example of a country that had not signed the NPT, had conducted nuclear tests, and had a nuclear programme. But during the negotiations, India was always cited as a country that followed the rules despite not being a signatory to the treaty. (Iran is a signatory to the NPT, and was accused of violating non-proliferation rules before the 2015 deal.)
Twenty years after Pokhran-II, this demonstrated behaviour has given India the moral, political and legal standing to convey to the world that it plays by the rules. So, be it the Paris Climate Accord, or the NSG, or freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific, or counter-terrorism initiatives, or a claim to be a permanent member of the UNSC, Pokhran-II and what followed has given India the right to claim the tag of a responsible power — a valuable asset in times when powers like the US and China are perceived to be not adhering to international commitments.