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Former US President George W. Bush with former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Photo: Reuters
Former US President George W. Bush with former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Photo: Reuters

How India broke into global nuclear club

The 1998 nuclear tests led to sanctions, but also opened window for closer India-US ties

New Delhi: On 18 May 1974, Raja Ramanna, the director of India’s premier Mumbai based nuclear research institute Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), placed a call to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. “The Buddha," he supposedly told her, “has finally smiled."

Coming as it did on Buddha Purnima (Buddha’s birthday) the message sounded innocuous. But it confirmed that India’s first nuclear test was a success. It was the first confirmed nuclear test by a nation that was not a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

India dubbed it a “peaceful nuclear explosion" or PNE but that did not stop industrialized nations like the US from imposing sanctions against the country, seen as living on food aid and critical economic assistance from the US and other rich nations such as Japan.

India’s test came six years after the international community concluded the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968 that divided the world into the nuclear haves and havenots.

“According to various accounts, India was not seen as ready (prior to 1968) to conduct the test in terms of putting in place a number of steps needed before exploding such a device," said former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh. “One of the big considerations also was the economic fallout of the nuclear test" given that India’s economy was seen as fragile.

Cut to 1998. It was once again on Buddha Purnima that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced on 11 May that India had detonated three nuclear devices in Pokhran.

As in 1974, India had again managed to avoid detection by the US and other intelligence agencies. And as in 1974, it was strategic constraints that compelled India to come out of the nuclear closet.

Through the 1980s, India watched uneasily as Pakistan pursued a covert nuclear weapons programme, aided by China. By the 1990s, India’s assessment was that Pakistan had acquired nuclear weapons capability—blunting India’s conventional military superiority against Pakistan and making Pakistani more brazen in its use of terrorism against India.

In 1996, India had come under pressure from the US and Western nations to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) that sought to embargo all nuclear testing.

“New Delhi wanted to make sure it did not miss an opportunity, lest the window close on it," said a person familiar with the development. “What was remarkable about the 1998 tests was that India had achieved this while being under a barrage of sanctions imposed on its after the 1974 tests. There were restrictions on India’s space programme, India’s missile programme and nuclear programme and whatever we did in 1998, was despite all this," the person cited above said.

A slew of sanctions were again swiftly imposed on India but the 1998 tests also opened the window for India-US rapprochement on nuclear matters—following extensive conversations between foreign minister Jaswant Singh and deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott.

“Then US President Bill Clinton thought it was important to engage India and that started the Jaswant Singh-Talbott dialogue. This resulted in many misunderstandings getting cleared up," said Mansingh.

“The US looking at India as a country to engage with resulted in other countries --friends of the US—doing the same. India’s economy was also looking up" which helped as US companies began to lobby with their government against sanctions on India, Mansingh said.

With US President George W. Bush coming to power, any emphasis on capping and rolling back India’s nuclear programme disappeared—if anything, the engagement was stepped up with Bush looking at India as a natural partner. “India began to be looked at as a counterweight to China and as a partner," Mansingh said.

A defence and strategic relationship quickly developed between New Delhi and Washington that later led to the landmark civil nuclear cooperation pact being signed in 2008 that saw the reversal of three decades of embargos against India.

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