May 2023 marks the Silver Jubilee of the overt nuclearization of South Asia. In May 1998, India carried out a series of nuclear tests, and unlike in 1974 — when it used the euphemism “Smiling Buddha” to describe what it claims to be a peaceful nuclear explosion — it declared itself a nuclear weapons state. Subsequently, India’s arch-rival to the East, Pakistan, was compelled to undertake remedial measures to restore the strategic balance in the region.
What prompted India to conduct nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998 has long been debated. India cites the threat from China — which defeated India in a 1962 border war and demonstrated nuclear capability in 1964 — and the arrival of the USA’s 7th fleet in the Bay of Bengal during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war as the justifications for conducting nuclear explosion in 1974.
However, it is worth noting that China declared a “No First Use” (NFU) policy from the very onset, and post-1962, the relationship between India and China did not deteriorate to erupt into hostilities again. Likewise, the sailing of the US Naval Task Force was neutralized by the posturing of the Pacific fleet of the Soviet Union — which signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation with India in August 1971, essentially bequeathing India with a security umbrella.
Furthermore, if the 1974 explosion had a security rationale, why did the Indira Gandhi government declare it a peaceful nuclear explosion? They could have acknowledged it as a nuclear weapon test, which would have better served the purpose of deterring the security threats that India was supposedly facing. Instead, New Delhi employed the term “peaceful nuclear explosion”, arguably to assuage international opprobrium that resulted from India carrying out a nuclear explosion.
So, what motivated Indira Gandhi’s government to conduct a nuclear explosion in 1974?
First, it was India’s long-held desire for global status. Considering India the rightful heir to the British Empire in South Asia, the early Indian leadership sought an influential status on the world stage — a desire inherited by the successors like Indira Gandhi. New Delhi chose its constituency among the third-world countries, wherein it claimed leadership status. Given most of the countries wielding influence on the international stage were part of the exclusive nuclear club, the demonstration of nuclear capability was seen as complementing the Indian aspiration for status on the world stage.
Secondly, despite decisively winning a war against the arch-rival Pakistan in 1971, the Indira government encountered a massive domestic upheaval during the early 1970s, which culminated in the imposition of an emergency in 1975. Resulting of Indira’s authoritarian style of government and the breakdown of governance, the cacophony of mass protests and movements was amplified by a constitutional crisis, which induced Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to seek retreat behind the nationalism stirred by the nuclear explosion — in effect aiming to cash in the dividends of the nuclear explosion in the domestic political arena.
Pakistan, on the other hand, never had any status-driven ambitions but endured under the perennial threat emanating from a many times bigger adversary — India. Initially, it endeavoured external balancing by signing the SEATO and CENTO pacts, which enabled the acquisition of crucial military support from the United States, but the undependability of the defence pacts became evident during the 1965 and 1971 wars with India. The latter particularly proved to be a turning point: driven by the “never again” pledge, Pakistani decision-makers sought internal balancing to avert a repeat of the 1971 debacle, wherein the nuclear route was considered the most viable option. The 1974 nuclear explosion by India only reinforced the resolve of Pakistani leadership to acquire nuclear capability and subsequently strenuous efforts and tremendous resources were dedicated to mastering the complex nuclear weapons technology.
Fast forward to 1998, India did not face an immediate or even distant security threat, which could have provided a plausible rationale for the nuclear tests and declaring itself a nuclear weapon state. Although the Indian PM Vajpayee later cited threats from China and Pakistan to justify nuclear tests, the empirical evidence suggests otherwise. By 1998, the relationship with China had been stable for years, and despite tensions with Pakistan, the conventional military balance titled decisively in India’s favour. However, the BJP — which led a fragile coalition government after 1998 polls — had an avowed agenda of reviving the splendour of Hindu antiquity and knotted nuclear weapons with their Hindu revivalist ambitions in the same way congress leaders linked nukes with India’s status at the global high table.
BJP’s 1998 elections manifesto promised to “reevaluate” India’s nuclear policy and “exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons”. In less than two months after winning the elections, the Vajpayee-led BJP government conducted nuclear tests and proclaimed India a nuclear weapons state. The subsequent posturing by the BJP leadership proved going nuclear had little to do with supposed security threats and was mostly about Hindu revivalism and regional hegemony. Moreover, the Vajpayee government found a quick solution in nuclear tests to weather the brewing storm in the ruling coalition, which started developing fissures soon after its formation.
After India declared its nuclear weapons status, Pakistan did not have much space to manoeuvre except to respond in kind. Pakistan had a plausible security rationale to carry out its nuclear tests and a choice to act otherwise would also have rendered Pakistan a perennial subject to India’s nuclear coercion, which augmented by India’s massive conventional military advantage could have created existential security threats for Pakistan — exactly the nightmarish scenario Pakistani leadership wanted to forestall when it chose the nuclear path. Hence, Pakistan’s decision to conduct nuclear tests not only restored the strategic balance in the region but also thanks to the viability of nuclear deterrence, South Asia has not seen an outbreak of hostilities from that moment on.
Author’s Bio: Hamdan Khan is currently working as Research Officer at Strategic Vision Institute Islamabad. He is an alumnus of the National Defence University Islamabad and has previously worked for the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI) and the Pakistan Council on China (PCC). Hamdan studies Global Affairs with a focus on Great-Power Politics, Programs and Policies of Nuclear Weapons States, and Emerging Military Technologies.