Numerous important studies exist explaining why do states acquire nuclear warheads across the globe. Security, regional hegemony, power, prestige, status, technology and domestic determinisms have largely accepted by optimists and pessimists for nuclear proliferation.
For instance, the United States and the United Kingdom develop nuclear weapons for regional hegemony, former Soviet Union, France, China, Israel, South Africa, Pakistan, and North Korea have manufactured nukes for security.
However, India’s case is dissimilar with rest of all nuclear weapon states. Indian as well as non-Indian academic pundits provide different studies and explanations regarding India’s nuclear tests. Realists and neo-realists argue that India went nuclear for security and regional hegemony. While some argue that India has tested nuclear devices in summer in 1998 for prestige, power, and status factor. Interestingly, few academic think tanks have argued that India joined the nuclear club for domestic politics considerations.
My study also understands that domestic factor played an important role for Vajpayee’s government to go overtly nuclear in May 1998. Atal Bihari Vajpayee first appeared in Indian politics as a foreign minister from 1977 to 1979 in the Janata government under Morarji Desai. His tenure was short that is why Indian people hardly got inspired by him. After the Pokhran explosion in May 1974, Congress was praised by the RSS and other Hindu hardliners who worshipped nuclear energy for prestige, power, and status. However, Congress did not succeed to continue their government with the nuclear explosion. Also, Congress did not consider nukes as a tool for power, prestige, and status rather a regrettable necessity, a terrible weapon fit only for deterrence.
In 1996, Vajpayee became prime minister of India. However, he enjoyed the office only for thirteen days. Before Vajpayee’s tenure of prime ministership, Congress government under Narasimha Rao was willing to go nuclear in 1995 but due to fear of economic sanctions and the US detection of nuclear test preparations in Pokhran desert, he decided not to proceed. The opportunity was left for Vajpayee, who without losing much time ordered the nuclear scientist for the atomic bomb tests in 1996. Unfortunately, the tests were halted when it became clear that Vajpayee would not be able to win a parliamentary vote of confidence.
Vajpayee was struggling for survival in Indian politics. He had lost the opportunity in 1996 to win the confidence of Indian people. Vajpayee again became prime minister of India on 20 March 1998 after forming a great alliance of nearly twenty allied parties under National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The maximum number of ministries were under the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). The opportunity for nuclear tests which Vajpayee lost in 1996 was in his mind. After holding the office of prime ministership in 1998, het met nuclear scientists and discussed about the future of India’s nuclear programme. Subsequently, military engineers were ordered to prepare the site for testing. Interestingly, Pakistan’s Ghauri missile test on 9 April 1998 helped Vajpayee to went nuclear. However, Ghauri missile test was an excuse, Vajpayee was desperately searching for justifications to go overtly nuclear in 1996 and 1998.
Vajpayee thought that nuclear tests will provide a boost to his image and BJP will be truly declared a ‘nationalist party’. Also, Vajpayee was cautious about the 1996 fractured electoral verdict. To survive in politics, nuclear explosion was an important option. There was uproar at that time that the Vajpayee government will survive only for six months. There were numerous challenges before Vajpayee gave an order for the nuclear tests. Vajpayee was heading the cabinet with the support of allied parties, it was very difficult for him to get majority of votes for nuclear tests. It was the main reason that Vajpayee did not consult the union ministers for the actual date of nuclear tests. Brajesh Mishra and Jaswant Singh were only two ministers with whom Vajpayee had discussed the actual date of testing. L. K. Advani (Home Minister) was told about the test a day before the actual testing. Surprisingly, majority of ministers were totally unaware of the secret nuclear meetings and about the decision to blast the deserts of Pokhran once again.
On 11 May and 13 May 1998, five nuclear devices were tested in Pokhran desert of Rajasthan. After the tests, the reason for nuclear explosions were claimed mostly external threat form China and Chinese nuclear technology to Pakistan. The domestic political factor was totally eschewed to win the emotions of the Indian people.
However, numerous studies and explanations place India’s nuclear programme in the ‘domestic politics model’. The nuclear experts like Kanti Bajpai, Achin Vanaik, Praful Bidwai, Scott Sagan, Itty Abraham, George Perkovich and many others have listed India nuclear tests in domestic determinants. The nuclear weapons have served the parochial interests of at least some actors within the states. Vajpayee case fits to justify the domestic political consideration factor for nuclear testing, who had intentionally ordered nuclear tests in summer 1998 for his survival and image.
After the nuclear tests, Vajpayee was declared a national hero, ‘the right man in the wrong party’. Indian media particular television has praised Vajpayee for a daring decision which Congress failed to take in its tenure after having all the time to do so. The BJP succeed to play politics with a bomb. The election slogan of BJP Sabko dekha baar-baar, humko parkhen ek bar (You have seen every party; now test us once) justifies that BJP was going for nuclear tests which Congress failed to do.
It was Vajpayee and his decision for nuclear tests in 1998 that BJP achieved strength and popularity in India. Also, the party was succeeded in claiming itself as a ‘nationalist party’. Vajpayee who was unknown to general pubic was projected with Nehruvian figure with charming personal qualities after the nuclear explosions. The nuclear tests gave Vajpayee a warm welcome from the middle class Indian people, who perceived him as being moderate, simple, and fun-loving man.
Kanti Bajpai argued that Vajpayee became a crowd catcher in India after the nuclear tests. The Congress was blamed as a party of “pseudo-secularists’ by L.K. Advani. Sonia Gandhi was taunted as ‘foreigner’ not fit to rule India. It was over all the ‘nuclear bomb’ that gave a momentum to the BJP to attack Congress and changed the political journey of BJP in general and Vajpayee in particular in India. Interestingly, Congress took lessons of the nuclear politics from the BJP, the US-India civil nuclear deal was signed between India and the United States in 2005 under the Congress government to accelerate the nuclear weapons programme.
In better terms, when government faces troubles at home, it starts focusing on external threat to divert the attention of the general public. Karthika Sasikumar and Christopher Way argued in his piece Testing Theories of Proliferation in South Asia that for vote bank, the government with an insure hold on power may seek to rally support around nationalism by going nuclear. The BJP used the nuclear card after the nuclear tests to win the emotions of the people. Several occasions during the election rally, BJP have highlighted India’s success from “cow dung power” to “Nuclear Power”. Also, Scott Sagan argued that the nuclear weapons were perhaps relevant to the unresolved Kashmir issue to win the emotions of public in India.
Thus, it is clear that the domestic determinant plays an important role in India’s nuclear decisions. Also, it is true that both the BJP and Congress now highlight the nuclear card for winning the emotions of the public to strengthen the domestic politics for their own interests. For instance, the importance of nuclear submarines, nuclear air bombers, missile defence systems are highly debated in India. During republic days, different varieties of nuclear capable missiles and nuclear air bombers are disclosed annually to win the confidence of the public.