India crashed into the nuclear club on May 11, 1998 as the result of a bold decision by the political and scientific establishment after a long period of debate, anxiety, hesitation, speculation and a technology demonstration in 1974. The reaction of the international community to India’s defiance of the NPT (Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty) regime was stronger than expected and its ripples are still palpable even after 20 years, like the resistance to India entering the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG). In fact, India’s political, diplomatic and scientific capabilities were put to the severest test during this period.
After 20 years, India has reason to be satisfied over having accomplished many of the objectives of Pokhran II. Indian diplomacy triumphed in turning the crisis into an opportunity by securing legitimacy for its nuclear arsenal and removing obstacles in generating nuclear power.
However, the hasty enactment of a liability law, which inhibited nuclear trade and the setback globally to nuclear power on account of the Fukushima disaster in Japan, stood in the way of India benefiting fully from Pokhran II and the subsequent agreements reached. But the fact remains that the tests of 1998 and the subsequent nuclear deal have brought India to the nuclear mainstream and opened up the global nuclear market for development of nuclear power without signing the NPT or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
India’s declaration as a nuclear weapon state took a long way in coming. Its nuclear policy had not ruled out the bomb, but the issue became acute after the NPT turned out to be discriminatory and India retained its nuclear option.
After what was called the Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE) of 1974, nobody was in doubt that India would test again and claim to be a nuclear weapon state. Successive Prime Ministers kept the powder dry for a test, but hesitated on account of the economic pressure that would follow.
At one stage, the US Ambassador confronted Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao with photographic evidence that Pokhran was getting ready for an explosion and President Bill Clinton sternly warned Rao of grave consequences. During his visit to Washington in 1993, Rao apparently gave an assurance that he would not test as long as the US joined efforts for total nuclear disarmament. But the US was not willing to acknowledge that bilateral understanding multilaterally.
While South Block (Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Defence) was ready to go for tests, North Block (Ministry of Finance) opposed it for fear of severe economic problems. Many studies were prepared on the possible impact of economic sanctions and all of them predicted dire straits for the economy.
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee came to power in May 1998 with the promise that nuclear weapons would be inducted after a defence review. The tests shocked the US, particularly because it was done in utmost secrecy and the India-US roller-coaster hit rock bottom. For nearly two months, the US refused to have any dialogue with India and it was in a punishment mode, having to implement the Glenn Amendment for the first time. Newer and newer sanctions were imposed and, at one point, it looked that the relations would never recover.
The Strobe Talbott - Jaswant Singh talks over the next two years were the most comprehensive dialogue India had with the US on nuclear policy, including its threat perception and future plans for security. India was anxious to have the sanctions lifted, but Jaswant Singh, who was then the foreign minister, sought to delink sanctions from the security dialogue, not to be pressurised to take quick decisions.
Talbott began by insisting that the objective was to get India to sign the NPT, “a crucial and immutable guidance” of US policy. Then he listed five benchmarks as non-proliferation goals to normalise relations: (1) signing of CTBT, (2) halting of production of fissile material, (3) strategic restraint, (4) strengthening of export control regimes and (5) normalisation of relations with Pakistan. These were strongly rejected by India, but the talks proceeded on the assumption that India’s security concerns should be fully understood and that India would take certain measures to suit its new status.
But, in effect, India met the US demands more than half way, leading to an understanding, which led to President Clinton’s visit to India and Vajpayee’s visit to the US in 2000.
India refused to sign the CTBT, but declared a moratorium on testing, agreed to join the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) negotiations without halting fissile material production, reaffirmed minimum deterrent without giving any number of warheads and agreed to strengthen export controls. Additionally, India declared no-first-use and a commitment to disarmament.
Though no deal could be struck, the foundation was laid for what became the nuclear deal in 2008. The BJP government would have been ready to sign a similar deal, but Clinton’s reluctance to dilute the NPT and lack of time were responsible for the delay till President George Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh decided to take the final plunge for a nuclear deal.
It took three long years to resolve a large number of issues that arose after signing of a framework agreement in 2005. Apart from political hesitations from both sides, there were a large number of technical issues to be resolved, but the diplomats from both sides managed to deal with them imaginatively because of the commitment of the leadership on both sides. It was not without a number of pitched battles in Delhi, Washington and Vienna, but, eventually, India gained much more than nuclear legitimacy and access to global nuclear trade. Though India placed its civilian nuclear facilities under perpetual safeguards, its nuclear assets remained fully insulated against external scrutiny and interference.
India secured rights to receive uninterrupted nuclear fuel supplies as a trade-off against safeguards. India kept open its right to acquire advanced enrichment and reprocessing technologies, although it would require bilateral negotiations with the US and others.
India’s sovereign right to test a nuclear device in the future has remained intact, although the deal would be in jeopardy in such an eventuality. Bush and Manmohan Singh remained committed to the deal throughout the negotiations and made decisive interventions at crucial moments. Apart from the specific gains in the nuclear area, the new India-US partnership, which promised investment and high technology, was a turning point in Indian foreign policy. On the negative side, the deal generated mistrust in Russia and China, which had to be dealt with in future years.
The ten years after the signing of the deal, its gains and losses proved much less game changing than it appeared in 2008. Though not a champion of the deal as a Senator, President Barack Obama committed himself to the implementation of the deal as part of his strategy to build good relations with India. But his personal affinity to the NPT and non-proliferation made him reluctant to interpret the 123 Agreement liberally. The expectation was that the prospect of nuclear trade with India was a great attraction but, in 2009, Obama gave some indication that he would not sacrifice his non-proliferation agenda for commercial reasons.
“President Obama does not want to stand in the way of the implementation of the 123 Agreement, but he is sensitive to the criticism that he is willing to dilute his commitment to non-proliferation for the sake of commercial advantages,” I wrote in August 2009.
Much has happened since then, but the fact remains that there has been no nuclear trade till today. India’s nuclear liability law, forced on the government by the enemies of the deal, became a smokescreen for the US not to supply nuclear material to India.
The repeated declarations about a way out of the liability law and planning for setting up US reactors in India after Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office have not changed the lack of enthusiasm of the US in nuclear trade with India. They are banking on defence supplies and cooperation after India became a close defence partner of the US.
The situation has become more volatile after the advent of President Donald Trump. With his assertion of nuclear weapons as fundamental to US security, a new dialogue may be necessary with him sooner or later to update the nuclear deal and to make it meaningful.
Another major event that has shaken our confidence in the value of nuclear power in our energy mix arising out of the nuclear deal was the Fukushima disaster. It has changed the global nuclear power scenario beyond recognition, though India has maintained that it is “business as usual” for India. The recent decision of the government to build more indigenous reactors points to the fact that the dream of imported nuclear reactors dotting the country has disappeared. Except for Kudankulam, which predates 1998, there is no single foreign reactor operating in India. India’s focus has rightly shifted to solar and other new sources of energy.
The nuclear tests of 1998 constituted a major disruptive strategy to unfreeze an unsatisfactory status quo of nuclear apartheid, which was impeding India’s security and development in various ways. The shock waves created by the tests were successfully contained by astute diplomacy and strong political will. But a combination of the unwise enactment of the liability law, the Fukushima tragedy and the advent of an unpredictable and unreliable US administration have cast a shadow on the nuclear scene in recent years.
The time has come for a realistic appraisal of India’s nuclear future and to adopt a realistic policy, taking the global situation into account.
(The author is a former Indian Ambassador and governor for India at the IAEA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)