Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 September 2009
In May 1998, a newly installed Indian government led by the Hindu nationalist Atal Behari Vajpayee set off five nuclear explosions in the Rajasthan desert and declared to the world that India was now a nuclear weapons state. Why did India suddenly go for nuclear weapons after years of remaining on the other side of the threshold? This chapter finds the key reason in Vajpayee's oppositional nationalism toward Pakistan – a dramatic departure from his secularist predecessors' sportsmanlike nationalist focus on India's place in the world beyond South Asia. Surprisingly, the by now voluminous literature on the Indian tests has tended to downplay the causal importance of the distinctive NIC of Vajpayee and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in favor of a counterfactual view that sooner or later the tests would have come anyway. To avoid “ahistoricism,” we are asked to delve into the supposedly deeper causes of India's grasping for the bomb: the existence of a China with nuclear weapons in the region since 1964; the long-held desire of secular as well as Hindu nationalists for recognition as a world power; and the many years of bomb promotion undertaken by India's scientific-bureaucratic “strategic enclave.” But, in fact, what is ahistorical is to view the 1998 tests as the endpoint of a logically unfolding teleology.
This is not to deny that India was at the cusp of a nuclear weapons arsenal before 1998.