On 11 and 13 May 1998, India conducted five nuclear explosions in the Pokhran range in Rajasthan. This came 24 years after 1974 when India conducted its first nuclear test, also in Pokhran. Indira Gandhi had then violated the terms under which nuclear technology was imported from Canada and India faced sanctions.
India’s first nuclear test came in a period which was decidedly unstable. China had become a nuclear power 10 years before that, becoming the last of the five veto holders in the United Nations to get an atom bomb. It was also a period during which much of the world was at war. The United States was finishing a bloody conflict in Vietnam and the then Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan was a few years down the line.
The 70s, nevertheless, were less predictable and conflicts were more common. During the Korean war, America’s top general MacArthur had threatened nuclear strikes against China and North Korea so casually that even the Americans were alarmed. This was the background to Indira’s tests, 48 years ago.
Under Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1998, there was no such compulsion. This was the period after the cold war had ended. The Soviet Union had collapsed, and India was on the cusp of information technology revolution. It became clear during this period that Bengaluru would lead India to a brave new services-led economic future.
It was a period when the economic rise of nations like Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and the other Asian tigers proved that power lay in wealth and not weaponry. North Korea, which was a big military power but with millions of impoverished citizens, only proved this further.
India did not have any debate over the tests in 1998. The Vajpayee government, in fact, wanted to test nuclear weapons during its first 13-day government, but an alarmed bureaucracy had said it could not agree to this. This shows how casually the tests were taken.
There were celebrations, including firecrackers and sweets, which ensured that there was no debate after the tests either and certain basic questions were neither asked nor answered. Twenty years later, when the emotion has gone and the issue is now boring, let us look at those questions:
First, did the tests make India a nuclear power? The answer is no. Indira and India were punished by the world after 1974, denying us access to nuclear technology, precisely because India had violated the earlier terms by weaponising India’s nuclear programme. The 1998 tests repeated that.
Second, did it make India safer? The answer is no. One year after Pokhran-II, in May 1999, Pakistan provoked a war in Kargil, in which India lost 500 soldiers. Ten years after that the country had the attack in Mumbai. The most violent phase of the conflict in Kashmir was actually after Pokhran-II, in 2001, when 4,500 people died.
Third, did it improve India’s nuclear technology? The answer here is also no. The Manmohan Singh government made a deal with the United States, but it has not got anywhere.
Fourth, did it raise India’s status? The answer is no. India has long insisted it should be a member of the Security Council. The nuclear tests did not help the country get there. Most likely it harmed New Delhi. Narendra Modi decided India should be a member of the Nuclear Supplier’s Group, but that has not got anywhere either.
Fifth, did the 1998 tests help India produce more electricity because of nuclear technology? The answer is no. India’s focus today has become solar rather than nuclear.
Sixth, did it alter the power dynamics of the South Asia region? The answer is again no. Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in Balochistan’s Chagai region only two weeks after Pokhran-II, and today there is a nuclear stalemate in the subcontinent. We can no longer use our conventional superiority for fear that the conflict will escalate. China has pushed its economic initiative strongly in the Indian subcontinent and today New Delhi’s concern is not China’s military might but its ability to take away all of India’s options.
Today Pakistan is actually ahead in terms of the number of nuclear devices that it has produced, according to many sources. It is indisputable that it is our action of 1998 that drove Islamabad to it. These were the questions we should have asked ourselves, but did not, in 1998. Any mature society, and particularly a democracy, should have debated a move that will have such far-reaching consequences. We treated it like setting off a firecracker.
Knowing all this, would India have still gone ahead with the nuclear tests? I will leave it for the reader to decide. I cannot figure out a single benefit that the tests gave us. I will, however, point to one significant loss. The 1998-1999 was the only year in the last quarter century that India had net-negative foreign investment.
Foreign money ran away from India that year because capital is a coward and does not like the uncertainty of the sort produced by such casual treatment of a destructive technology. The loss to India and its economy from this has never been discussed. And as the lack of celebrations on the 20th-anniversary of the nuclear tests show, India has moved on as if nothing happened.