I’ve been asked to reflect back on India’s nuclear tests 20 years ago. My first reflection is that Indians do not need (or want) an American to say whether the tests benefited or harmed India. Fortunately, the leader who ordered them, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, himself provided a good template for measuring the balance of gain and loss. I simply highlight some of the key passages from the letter Vajpayee sent to President Bill Clinton on May 12 explaining India’s rationale, and suggest points of data that might be considered in assessing the net outcomes as of today.
The prime minister began: “I have been deeply concerned at the deteriorating security environment, specially the nuclear environment, faced by India for some years past. We have an overt nuclear weapon state on our borders, a state which committed armed aggression against India in 1962. Although our relations with that country have improved in the last decade or so, an atmosphere of distrust persists mainly due to the unresolved border question.”
Twenty years later, has India’s open possession of a nuclear arsenal changed the fundaments of its relationship with China? On one hand, Chinese leaders recognise that a major aggression against Indian territory would not be worth the risk of nuclear war. This reassures Indians and the rest of the world. On the other hand, the territorial challenge and distrust still persist, as the pushing and shoving over Doklam shows.
The Wuhan meeting in late April between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping may have tempered the dispute, but India’s nuclear arsenal has not tilted the balance of usable power in New Delhi’s favour. China’s economic, political and conventional military power continues to grow advantageously, though not enough to enable China to get its way in the territorial dispute. On balance, then, the basic trends remain no more favourable for India than they were in 1998.
Turning to Pakistan, Vajpayee’s letter noted that China had helped Pakistan to become a “covert nuclear weapons state,” and that “this bitter neighbour” has committed “three aggressions in the last 50 years.” Moreover, Pakistan had inflicted “unremitting terrorism and militancy” in several parts of India.
A year after Vajpayee’s letter was sent, Pakistani personnel mounted the Kargil incursion, prompting a hard-fought Indian victory in the ensuing conflict. Two years after that, the Lok Sabha attack by terrorists was attributed to Pakistan. More followed, as Indians are well aware: Multiple times against civilians in Mumbai, most horrifically in 2008, and twice in 2016 against military targets at Pathankot and Uri. Exchanges of artillery fire have risen dramatically across the Line of Control, as has violent unrest in Kashmir.
Meanwhile, India and Pakistan continue an unremitting nuclear arms race. Fear and frustration grow that the threshold for nuclear conflict is steadily being lowered. Nuclear weapons and the threats that surround them solidify the Pakistani military’s practical hold on power in the country. This arguably attenuates prospects of diplomatic efforts to achieve a durable, non-violent modus vivendi between the two countries.
The 1971 war probably made Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons inevitable, whether or not India had tested in 1998. So, too, it is difficult to argue that Indian nuclear forbearance would have motivated China to fundamentally change the relationship it has developed with Pakistan over the past 20 years. What seems fair is to say that nuclear weapons have not shifted the balance of power in India’s favour over Pakistan since 1998, though India’s economic growth has.
More positively, and perhaps ironically, Vajpayee’s hope that the tests would not durably harm relations with the United States has been borne out. “We value our friendship and cooperation with your country,” the prime minister wrote to President Clinton. “We hope you will show understanding of our concern for India’s security.”
The United States did inevitably impose nuclear sanctions on India, but Clinton soon became the first president in 22 years to visit the country. And, seven years after the tests, the George W Bush Administration concluded the “nuclear deal” with India and began a process of removing nuclear sanctions and normalising India’s position with other nuclear suppliers. President Obama and his successor, Donald Trump, have continued bipartisan efforts to build a partnership with India.
Vajpayee’s last substantive lines pledged India to continue working with the United States “to promote the cause of nuclear disarmament,” including to participate in negotiations on a treaty to end production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons. This passage is particularly poignant today, recording how far the world has regressed in creating the conditions for nuclear arms control and disarmament.
Vajpayee’s letter did not address two other gains that Indian officials and commentators hoped would follow from the 1998 tests. One was that overt possession of nuclear weapons would give India “a seat at the high table” of international politics. A permanent seat on the UN Security Council, joining the five pre-1967 nuclear-weapon states, was the grandest aspiration. Other forms of recognition also were envisioned. It is for Indians to judge if their country has the global influence they think it deserves. Whether its overt possession of nuclear weapons has helped or hindered in this regard is difficult to say.
The second hope was that open possession of nuclear weapons would normalise India’s civilian nuclear energy programme in ways that would lead to major growth of this sector. The 2008 waiver of NSG restrictions on India helped in this regard, but the growth of the Indian nuclear energy sector continues to lag far behind projections. Shortly after the NSG agreement, Indian sources projected that India would produce 40,000 megawatts of nuclear electricity in 2020 — 15,000 from domestic reactors and 25,000 from imports. Today, India has 6,780 MW installed nuclear capacity. (By comparison, China has 34,500 MW).
Finally, any effort to balance the gains, losses and null effects of the 1998 tests cannot avoid the challenge of counterfactuals. It is impossible to say with great confidence which developments would have been different, or would have occurred or not occurred if India had not tested in 1998. Looking ahead, can analysis of the past 20 years help Indians and others identify policies that would improve the balance of gains? Indians and the rest of the world have many reasons to hope that the answer is “yes”.