How India Was Forced To Conduct The Nuclear Tests Of 1998 – Analysis


By Manoj Joshi*

After its lone nuclear weapon test of 1974, New Delhi had long adopted a nuclear strategy of ambiguity. It had the wherewithal to test but did not do so. Many names were given to the policy, “recessed deterrence”, “non weaponised deterrence”, and so on. But in the 1990s, pressure on India to test came from three specific directions.

First, the intelligence that Pakistan already possessed ready-made nuclear weapons, courtesy China. Linked to this was United States (US) President Bush’s refusal, in 1990, to certify that Islamabad was not trying to acquire nuclear weapons. Second, from the US’s push to close the window of nuclear weapons fabrication by additional countries by extending the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) unconditionally and indefinitely, and universalising the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). And, third, from specific efforts to “freeze, cap and roll back” India and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capability.

In the meantime, New Delhi continued to work along a strategy of “technology demonstration” to deter potential adversaries. In August 1986, the Dhruva research reactor was commissioned as the major source of weapons grade plutonium, and, in 1989, the first test of a long-range missile demonstrator—Agni—took place and the US picked up signs that India was building a thermonuclear weapon.

In the 1990s, India fought hard to link the two treaties to verifiable and systematic disarmament of all powers, but soon it became clear that targeted disarmament of countries like India, rather than universal disarmament, was the goal of the US and the existing nuclear weapons states. The CTBT was passed in September 1996, but it failed in its ratification because of opposition by countries like India. Realising that the window was closing in the mid-1990s, India rushed to test its weapons.

The political context

With the defeat of the Indian National Congress (INC) in the 1989 elections, a certain degree of uncertainty crept into the nuclear and missile programme of the country. National Front (NF) Leader, Prime Minister V P Singh, took office with a minority government supported from outside by the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). The year began with the outbreak of the Kashmir rebellion, supported by Pakistan. Indeed, as thousands of Kashmiris poured across the Line of Control to receive guns and training, Islamabad sought to exploit the crisis and issued an explicit nuclear threat. There is some controversy about the mission of Robert M Gates, Deputy Director of the CIA, to the subcontinent in early 1990 and his warning about a possible nuclear threat to India. But journalist Shekhar Gupta has fleshed out  the issue and the V P Singh government’s response at the time, which alarmingly revealed that, “if India did have a credible, deliverable deterrent, then, its armed forces had not even seen it.” In Gupta’s view, this was when India “finally dropped its nuclear ambiguity and pushed for full-fledged weaponisation.”

The ensuing two years were of extreme political instability. On one hand, Prime Minister V P Singh promoted the Mandal Commission reforms on quotas for Other Backward Castes; on the other, his ally, the BJP, rallied its supporters to build a mosque at the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. The country was being wracked by the separatist movement in Jammu & Kashmir. Meanwhile, things in Punjab, where another separatist insurgency was taking place, was going from bad to worse. The split between Singh’s Jan Morcha and the BJP led to the collapse of the NF government in November 1990 and the emergence of a minority government of the Janata Dal, supported by the INC, and headed by Chandrashekhar, which lasted another six months till general elections were called.

In November 1990, President H W Bush issued an indirect nuclear threat to Saddam Hussein after the onset of the first Gulf War. This was criticised by the INC, which said that such a development could compel India to reconsider its nuclear restraint.

Sometime in April 1991, this writer had occasion to attend a meeting where former Prime Minister (PM) Rajiv Gandhi made some off-the-record remarks on the nuclear programme. According to Gandhi, his party wanted to present a formal memorandum to President Venkatraman on the issue. Then, it was decided that, given the sensitivity of the subject, Gandhi should verbally discuss the issue with the President. The former PM said that, being aware of the developments in the nuclear programme till he had demitted office, he wanted the President to ensure that things remained on track in the nuclear and missile field. When asked what was the President’s response, Rajiv Gandhi said, “he just smiled,” implying that things were indeed all right.

P V Narasimha Rao 

But, within a month of that meeting, Rajiv Gandhi had been assassinated and P V Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister in June 1991. India was now hit by a trifecta of disasters—the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the near bankruptcy of the Union government, and, by the end of the year, the collapse of the Soviet Union. And all this came on top of the already roiled domestic situation in Kashmir and Punjab, and the political struggle of the Ram Mandir movement, the latter of which led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, communal violence, and the Bombay blasts of 1993. On the nuclear front, Indian diplomacy had to counter the American suggestion that India and Pakistan enter into a bilateral restraint regime, which would be overseen by the P-5 of the United Nations. This was a non-starter considering India’s threat perceptions from China. To deflect US pressure, India decided to enter into a bilateral nuclear dialogue with Washington, even as it accelerated its nuclear and missile programme. In 1992, an upgraded Agni demonstrator was tested, and, two years later in 1994, a third successful test took place.

At the end of 1995, the Narasimha Rao government took the decision to conduct a nuclear test. But the preparations were picked up by the Americans who pressured the Indians and ensured that the test did not take place. 

1996-1998 continued instability

The INC lost heavily in the 1996 elections and the big gainer was the BJP, which did not win the election but had the largest number of seats in Parliament. It set up a government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, but the government came apart in 13 days.

What was significant was that in those 13 days, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) were authorised to conduct the nuclear weapons test. However, even as they had emplaced the devices, the government collapse led to a cancellation of the test.

The collapse of the Vajpayee government led to two quick Prime Ministers—H D Deve Gowda between June 1996 and April 1997, and Inder Kumar Gujral between April 1997 and March of 1998. Under Gujral, India signed on to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in early 1997, but he refused to sign the Fissile Material Cut Off Treaty or the CTBT because of their discriminatory nature. A significant aspect of the Vajpayee decision was reflected in the BJP’s 1996 Election Manifesto, which noted that it would reevaluate the country’s nuclear policy “and exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons.” The earlier 1991 Election Manifesto had spoken of providing our defence forces “nuclear teeth”. By way of contrast, the Congress Party 1996 Manifesto took a somewhat roundabout approach to the issue, noting that if Pakistan persists in developing and deploying nuclear weapons, “India will be constrained to review her policy to meet the threat.”

Atal Bihari Vajpayee 

Atal Bihari Vajpayee returned to power in March 1998 and almost immediately authorised the nuclear tests again. The 1998 Election Manifesto had once again explicitly called for India to “exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons” besides expediting the missile programme. India claimed that it had done so on account of the test of the Ghauri missile by Pakistan on April 6, 1998, but as the background suggests, India had made at least two efforts to test in the previous two years.


While the story of India’s fight for disarmament or against the efforts of the US to “cap, freeze and rollback” the Indian programme are well known, what is often not understood are the very difficult political circumstances in which the events had played out. As we have seen, the action took place in a period where India was undergoing major domestic crises arising out of separatism and political tensions. Equally, what is not that well understood is the unified approach that the country adopted in pursuing its nuclear goal. If Rajiv Gandhi, while in the Opposition, sought to keep the strategic programmes on track; BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as the leader of the Opposition post that, led delegations to the Conference on Disarmament in the mid-1990s, opposing discriminatory agreements. And Prime Minister I K Gujral of the Janata Party refused to commit to India signing any “discriminatory” agreements like the CTBT and the FMCT in 1997.

*About the author: Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and columnist on these issues. As a reporter, he has written extensively on issues relating to Siachen, Pakistan, China, Sri Lanka and terrorism in Kashmir and Punjab.

Source: This article was published by Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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