The May 11, 1998 ‘Shakti’ nuclear tests carried out by India (aka Pokhran II) under the leadership of then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was heading the BJP led NDA I government, marked the arrival of the world’s sixth de-facto nuclear weapon state and served to redress Delhi’s WMD ( weapons of mass destruction ) asymmetry apropos the regional strategic environment.
It is 20 years since India made that momentous decision to cross the Rubicon, after keeping the nuclear option open for decades and living with considerable unease in the world’s most complex and opaque security environment.
India had been grappling with a proximate nuclear challenge since October 1964 when China acquired its nuclear weapon capability and Beijing became the fifth member of the global nuclear club. Consequently India’s strategic profile had to contend with this reality of a nuclear armed neighbor with whom it had a very strained relationship post the October 1962 border war.
India sought to redress this imbalance by carrying out a peaceful nuclear explosion (PNE) in May 1974 but then PM Indira Gandhi refrained from weaponizing this capability – which at best was a technology demonstrator. This resulted in the USA imposing stringent technological sanctions against India and Delhi being ostracized by the larger US led western alliance.
Through the 1980’s Pakistan pursued a covert nuclear weapon program, which was also enabled by China and this marked the beginning of Sino-Pak WMD cooperation that was unprecedented for its depth and opacity. Consequently by mid 1990 the Pakistan army had acquired a covert nuclear weapon and India’s nuclear asymmetry and vulnerability became even more stark. This was exacerbated by the manner in which Pakistan used this nuclear capability as a shield to intensify its terror attacks against India, thereby patenting what has been described as nuclear weapon enabled terrorism (NWET).
Against such a dark nuclear clod, India was relatively alone in December 1991 when the Cold War ended with Boris Yeltsin astride a tank ( the visual image that symbolized the collapse of the formidable Soviet Union) in dealing with this harsh new world. The USA, the remaining superpower at the time which was looming large and triumphant having trampled Iraq in the war for Kuwait in January 1991, was determined to impose its template of nuclear non-proliferation. This iniquitous nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) sought to retain the sanctity of the nuclear club and the exclusive strategic capability that was accorded unto the five nuclear weapon state (NWS) members.
This framework was inimical to India’s overall strategic and security profile and successive Indian Prime Ministers from Rajiv Gandhi to Narasimha Rao sought to redress the various coercive initiatives that were being imposed to fetter India and compel Delhi to renounce the nuclear capability in perpetuity – the central objective of the NP . India rejected the NPT as being the equivalent of ‘nuclear apartheid.’
In the mid 1990’s this US led pressure was increased and the Clinton administration unveiled its ‘cap, roll-back and eliminate’ strategy to compel India accede to two other treaties – the CTBT (comprehensive test ban treaty) and the FMCT (fissile material cut-off treaty) – which if entered into would have the same substantive impact as signing the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS).
In December 1995 PM Narasimha Rao sought in vain to carry out a nuclear test and establish India as a de-facto NWS but this was foiled by the USA. The political disarray that followed in Delhi was not conducive to a nuclear weapon test and finally it was the determination of PM Vajpayee that led to India crossing the Rubicon on May 11, 1998. India had successfully demonstrated its strategic autonomy, albeit in a limited , restrained and responsible manner.
Almost immediately, after the second set of tests on May 13th, Delhi announced that it would not carry out any further tests ( a uni-lateral moratorium ) and adopted a no-first-use (NFU) policy as the sixth nuclear weapon state – but outside the NPT.
It is often asked as to what May 11, 1998 achieved for India and critics aver that it did not prevent Pakistan sponsored terrorism (Mumbai 2008 ), or for that matter the Chinese intrusion in Doklam was not averted.
The comparison is misleading. The fact that the USA has the world’s most formidable WMD arsenal did not prevent 9/11 and the terror attack on New York. The acquisition of nuclear weapons by PM Vajpayee had a core security objective – namely to ensure that India would never be subjected to any form of nuclear blackmail or intimidation. That objective has been achieved.