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Thursday, May 23, 2024

India’s nuclear tests & escalation of tensions: A catalyst for Pakistan’s nuclearization

The immediate impact of India's nuclearization was an increased security dilemma at a regional level, posing a direct threat to Pakistan.

|Ayesha Sikandar

India’s threats against Pakistan following its own nuclear tests on May 11, 1998, contributed largely to Pakistan’s decision to conduct its own nuclear tests on May 28, the same year. Upon analyzing the statements made in the aftermath of India’s nuclear tests on May 11th, it becomes evident that the tests not only posed an immediate threat to neighboring countries but specifically heightened the existential threat to Pakistan, emphasizing the gravity and urgency of the situation.

With their powerful statements and heated rhetoric, Indian leaders stoked the flames of nationalistic sentiment while pushing Pakistan into a security dilemma. This development was significant as it highlighted the role of strategic rivalry and the arms race in shaping the nuclear policies of both countries.

The aftermath of India’s five underground nuclear tests was marked by escalated tensions in South Asia as the world watched eagerly to see how the situation would unfold. The first and foremost thing in this regard is to revisit the statements made by Indian leaders, followed by the country’s overt nuclearization.

Apparently, the rationale behind India’s nuclear tests on the 11th  and 13th of May was to deal with the ‘deteriorating Security and Nuclear environment’ in South Asia, with special reference to the growing Chinese threat in the region as the prime reason. But if one critically analyses Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s letter to President Clinton upon conducting these tests, it becomes crystal clear that Pakistan was directly targeted. Some of the main points of this letter were:

I have been deeply concerned about the deteriorating security environment, especially the nuclear environment, faced by India for some years past. We have an overt nuclear weapon state on our borders, a state which committed armed aggression against India in 1962. To add to the distrust, that country has materially helped another neighbor of ours to become a covert nuclear weapons state. At the hands of this bitter neighbor, we have suffered three aggressions in the last 50 years. And for the last ten years, we have been the victim of unremitting terrorism and militancy.

Read more: Pakistan nuclear technology helped country earn $7.4 bn

In the midst of this volatile atmosphere, a cabinet minister in the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, Home Minister L.K. Advani, issued a stern warning to Pakistan. While passing remarks on the Indian nuclear program he referred to Pakistan by saying, “Vajpayee’s declaration has brought India-Pakistan relations into a new phase and it signifies even with no policy of no first strike, India is resolved to deal firmly with Pakistan’s hostile activities in Kashmir.”

Advani’s words challenged Pakistan not to dare to interfere in the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir. As a hard-liner leader in charge of domestic security, his comments carried weight, and they were among the most forceful yet from the BJP-led coalition government. These irresponsible statements largely fueled public sentiment as public opinion went as high as 91% in favor of Indian nuclear tests.

India’s domestic politics

While many focus on threats from China and Pakistan as the primary driver of India’s nuclearization, one must not ignore domestic politics. The domestic political scenario under Vajpayee’s coalition government didn’t favor Bhartiya Janta Party’s (BJP) ulterior motives driven by the Hindu nationalist outlook. Most of the coalition partners had differing views independent of the w.r.t agenda of the BJP.

BJP leaders saw nuclearization as one key option to ensure its legitimacy while gaining a larger population’s support. On April 18 1998, the BJP coalition government issued its Agenda for Governance, where the nuclear option was considered viable to secure India’s territory and integrity. This agenda states, “To ensure the security, territorial integrity, and unity of India, we will take all necessary steps and exercise all available options. Towards that end, we will re-evaluate the nuclear policy and exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons.”

Read more: Management of public perception to safeguard Pakistan’s nuclear program

It is pertinent that BJP plays the card of ‘national prestige’ to reinforce the nationalistic sentiments in the wider public to gain massive support in upcoming elections. Former Indian foreign secretary, Muchkund Dubey, mentioned in 1994, while stating the Indian case, that “The bomb option is a currency of power that is critical to our survival as a strong nation.” While referring to China as ‘Threat No.1”, Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes claimed that “Chinese military activities and alliances, especially those involving Pakistan, Burma, and Tibet, are encircling India.” The Indian narrative greatly undermined the security of the South Asian region, specifically Pakistan, by accelerating the arms race in the region.

Countering the security dilemma

As Western leaders, including President Clinton, scrambled to prevent Pakistan from conducting its nuclear tests in response to India’s show of force, the situation remained on a knife’s edge. Soon after the Indian nuclear tests, Pakistan showed restraint and made no hasty decision. But the narrative which dominated the Indian political environment after 11th May 1998 put Pakistan in a difficult situation.

Testing its nuclear weapons became ‘inevitable’ as prime minister Nawaz Sharif stated, considering India’s hostile behavior. While explaining the urgency of Pakistan’s over-nuclearization, former Chief of Army Staff, Mirza Aslam Beg, stated that “The BJP had threatened to exercise nuclear option and to ‘liberate’ Azad Jammu and Kashmir during the run-up to the elections. It has fulfilled one of the promises by exploding five devices and I fear that it will soon launch an attack on AJK”.

Read more: Understanding Pakistan as a responsible nuclear state

From the statements above, it can be inferred that the Indian nuclear program disrupted the existing status quo in the region. The immediate impact of this nuclearization was an increased security dilemma at a regional level, posing a direct threat to Pakistan which officially declared itself a nuclear state on May 28th 1998.

The author is a researcher at Strategic Vision Institute, Islamabad. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.