New Delhi: Inevitably over the next few days, there will be analyses galore of whether the May 1998 nuclear tests attained their geopolitical objectives or fell short. It’s been twenty years since the tests. So what’s the verdict? In a phrase, it has been a mixed result, but there is a bigger truth that overlies all the analyses. And this is that the tests are a reality. Any discussion that they failed or succeeded misses a critical point. They cannot be undone just as surely as nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented. The tests led to intended and unintended consequences. Neither can those be erased or reversed. Therefore, part of any post-Pokhran II analyses would be academic. The part that conceivably would be useful for posterity is to learn from the fallouts of the test which are both positive and negative.

Analysis of Pokhran II has started currently from A. B. Vajpayee’s letter to Bill Clinton when both personages headed the respective governments of India and the United States. The letter should not have been written in the first place. From information available at the time, the letter came at the prodding of the prime minister’s principal secretary who then was Brajesh Mishra. The Indian government panicked when the test produced adverse reaction particularly on the part of two consequential governments, namely those of the United States and China. To contain the opposition, Vajpayee addressed a justificatory letter to a head of government he hoped would be sympathetic to India, Bill Clinton. There was no reason to suppose the United States would be sympathetic. After all it had a nasty history of imposing sanctions on India and had threatened the nation with a nuclear carrier task force in the middle of the 1971 war.

It is evident, however, that the Vajpayee government lost its nerve. One cannot be too condemnatory. It had no prolonged experience of government or statecraft. It had never attempted a world-shaking event like a nuclear test. The nuclear test was not Vajpayee’s idea. That credit goes to the P. V. Narasimha Rao government which made all the test preparations. Unfortunately word leaked of the preparations and the United States brought enormous pressure on the government to abandon the test. In political circles it was whispered that Narasimha Rao had exhorted Vajpayee to conduct the test at the first opportunity. The opportunity arrived with Vajpayee’s thirteen-month government and he seized it. But the principal reason for the test was not what found its way into Vajpayee’s letter to Clinton. There was a growing fear in the nuclear community that India could not resist the pressure to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). So before it came into force (it never did with the US not ratifying it), it was essential to test the weapons, particularly the thermonuclear device. It is another matter that the device fizzled in Pokhran II putting a question mark on India’s thermonuclear deterrent. Nothing has been done to erase the doubt.

Be that as it may, it was worse than foolish to communicate the things that Vajpayee did to Clinton. The day had not even ended when the letter reached The New York Times in an obvious leak from the Clinton White House. Rather than mitigate India’s misery, it doubled it, and made the country a laughing stock of the world. When you do something as explosive as a nuclear test (no pun intended), the least you are expected to be is rigidly stoic while betraying no sense of apprehension or foreboding. The letter was a dreadful giveaway. It exhibited that the Vajpayee government was clearly unprepared for the fierce opposition of two of the three Major Powers. It is positively incredible that the government should have been caught so unawares. And the letter itself revealed indiscretions of Himalayan proportions. Do you make naked accusations against one Major Power (in this case China) to another (the United States) and thereby show your hand and your weakness? Do you then compound it by naming your sub-continental rival in the letter giving genuine grounds to alarm the world about a nuclear arms race and to compel the US non-proliferation lobby to demand a tough stand against India? If the idea of the letter was to prevent sanctions, it brought them on, and it was a first of a series of incidents that injected mistrust in Sino-Indian relations. China prides itself as a Great Power (although it is only a Major Power) and is opposed to third party intervention in its bilateral disputes. It had reason to believe India was bringing a third party, the United States, in its border dispute with China, and it caused a flare-up in Beijing. China doubled down on punishing India for the nuclear test, and its present opposition to India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Club arguably derives its first seeds from the Pokhran II test.

To be continued...