In May 1998, India crossed the nuclear threshold by detonating its nuclear devices. Although India had tested a nuclear device in 1974, the 1998 tests conducted by the then NDA government over-stepped the threshold of Gandhian non-violence and earned the country global recognition as well as brickbats.

These tests were the culmination of a series of scientific, technological and political developments that were gradually taking place under the pre-1998 governments and were setting a militarising trend within India’s strategic culture.

A number of factors explain India’s 1998 nuclear tests. They are geo-strategic (stemming from India’s regional powers and their reported covert and overt military, nuclear and political developments); a sense of nuclear hierarchy and nuclear discrimination (known as nuclear apartheid) perceived by India from the then nuclear or the P-5 powers (China, France, Russia, the UK and US); a concomitant consolidation of India’s nuclear nationalism; India’s desire for national glory and global recognition; the momentum of India’s scientific/technological community to pursue nuclear technology for its national development; and electoral considerations of the BJP to make India a nuclear power if it came to power.

A big shift For better or for worse, the traditionally deemed “Gandhian” India is now an entrant to the nuclear club, and, ironically — despite some of its intense critiques against the militarisation trends of the P-5 nuclear powers and its prolonged (but unsuccessful) quest for a free and fair global disarmament — is now a big player in the global nuclear sweepstakes.

What are the prospects of a nuclear India? In terms of its rising global stature, and the further development of both civilian and military nuclear programmes, nuclear India holds much promise. India’s civilian power-generation programmes through the production of various kinds of advanced, pressurised, and fast breeder reactors are not only expected to meet the country’s rapidly growing energy and electricity generation needs but also offer it with greater sources of energy and more stable energy security for its growing economy in a cleaner manner.

Although theoretically-speaking, the civilian nuclear technology component of India is expected to be separated from its military nuclear technology power, the two spill over. The enhancement of India’s indigenous nuclear weapons industry since 1998, with significant foreign collaboration particularly with the US, became a feature of the post 9/11 era.

This explicit line of post-1998 nuclear weapons development of India also projects a “new” assertive identity of India.

This challenges its earlier image of being a “typical” non-Western entity associated with notions of Oriental passivity, femininity, backwardness and lack of a strategic mindset.

This “masculine” India is well documented in India’s interactions with its neighbouring South Asian and East Asian states. The engagement is political, strategic and economic and is calculated to maintain the overall “nuclear balance” in the South Asian arena. While confidence building, anti-terrorism measures, and nuclear deterrence have been adopted by a nuclear India to deal with its South Asian nuclear neighbour (although the concept of deterrence has been questioned), the Indian state’s “new” assertiveness and confidence has resulted in a mix of policies such as cooperation and competition (i.e., coopetition) to deal with its East Asian nuclear neighbour.

It is in this context that India’s Look East policy should be viewed. It seeks to extend its spheres of interest as far as Indonesia, Sumatra, and the Malacca Straits — a policy started by the 2004-2014 Congress government and continued by the current Modi government.

After 9/11 India’s becoming nuclear — followed by 9/11, the climate of globalisation and India’s increasing desire to liberalise its economy — saw an unprecedented improvement in bilateral relations between the US and India. One cannot ignore that a simultaneous strategic desire on the part of the US under the Bush administration (and continued by the Obama administration) made it an imperative for the US to “engage” with India for various political, security, economic, globalisation, trade and technology-related reasons.

These increasing post-9/11 interactions between India and the US in the field of arms deals; defence cooperation; joint counter-terrorism cooperation; and in other non-military areas such as climate control, human rights are testimony to the potential of nuclear India as a rising power.

The logic is simple: that India as a democratic, globalising, and nuclear power; a major source of information technology; and a bourgeoning market for US exports requires the US to take India seriously.

What, however, are the problems and potential challenges of a nuclear India?

Critiques of India’s nuclear bomb emanated from the then 1998 oppositional political parties such as the Congress Party and the Marxists (although immediately after the tests these parties had initially rejoiced the detonation of the bomb).

These critical views have remained marginal to the mainstream/official views of nuclear India. An approach reiterated by the UPA and now followed by the Modi administration, it seeks to develop India’s indigenous nuclear weapons development technology and strengthen its neo-liberal technological alliances with the US.

In the light of post-9/11 geo-politics, India’s efforts to be a part of the Western nuclear world against which it had for long raised a critical voice for fostering a militant climate has given rise to criticism.

Reality checks Can one then claim that India is now a part of this global militant climate fuelling a nuclear arms race globally and in South Asia? Speaking of an arms race, can nuclear India foster the much touted concept of nuclear deterrence in South Asia?

The latest attempt of the 1990s to achieve global disarmament through the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is now redundant (with the US, the prime driver of the treaty itself deciding not to ratify the treaty).

The larger question is whether India, cognisant of the growing militarisation and nuclearisation all round and in its regional vicinity, even try to curb its nuclear weapons capacity or sign any regional bilateral disarmament treaties with its regional powers?

While an ideal global non-proliferation scenario would be to secure a free and fair world of global disarmament with the P-5 leading the way to be followed by other states, current trends do not evoke confidence in this regard.

In its absence, one can simply speculate how myriad nationally, regionally, and globally connected factors will define the future of nuclear India.

The writer teaches at Department of Political Science, University of Minnesota, Duluth, USA. She is the author of Revisiting Nuclear India: Strategic Culture and (In)Security Imaginary (Sage)