Imagine managing Kashmir militancy in a situation where Pakistan has a clear nuclear weapons advantage, to take just one example

Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of Pokhran-II – India’s second nuclear test in 1998. Yesterday, US President Donald Trump walked away from the Iran nuclear deal. And sometime in the near future Trump and North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, may meet and try to work out a nuclear deal for Pyongyang.

This is an excellent time, therefore, to point out that on the question of danger posed by proliferation of nuclear weapons, India got it more right than the US, which had severely critiqued Pokhran-II and has been the prime power behind every nuclear containment effort globally.

It’s possible to break up the argument on how India got the nuclear question right in two parts. One, India chose the right time to become an overt nuclear weapons state, which happened after Pokhran-II in 1998. Two, North Korea and Iran today clearly demonstrate India’s longstanding argument that US-led nuclear nonproliferation regimes never stopped determined rogues; it only penalised responsible, aspirational democracies.

Let’s examine each in some detail:

The consensus among nuclear policy experts in India is that pre-Pokhran-II, Pakistan’s nuclear weaponisation programme was much ahead of India’s. China, of course, was already a full-fledged nuclear weapons state. So, Pokhran-II gave India a strategic card it didn’t have.

The 1998 timing was also right because Pakistan’s military-terrorist complex became far more adventurous in subsequent years. Imagine managing Kashmir militancy in a situation where Pakistan has a clear nuclear weapons advantage, to take just one example.

Around Pokhran-II, China was at the peak of its long period of high growth, on its way to becoming the near-superpower it is today. As China began to attain global power status India’s nuclear power status post-1998 gave, and continues to give, it some strategic space.

Also, India threw away its nuclear purdah a good few years after it threw away its state-socialist purdah. Economic growth post-1991 liberalisation allowed India to cope better with post-Pokhran-II US-led economic sanctions.

More broadly, the addition of some economic lustre to India’s political achievement of being a democracy made New Delhi’s decision to go overtly nuclear less unpalatable globally. India emerged as a market for global companies with their headquarters in the West. Money, or in this case the possibility of making money, talks.

It’s not surprising therefore that roughly a decade after Bill Clinton imposed sanctions on India for Pokhran-II, George Bush offered the nuclear deal to India in 2007 – an invitation to join the global nuclear club with certain reasonable conditions attached.

By 2007 India’s economy had grown even bigger, its market was even more attractive, and it had maintained its flawless record as a responsible nuclear power, not selling know-how to any dodgy regime.

It’s clear therefore that Pokhran-II was a necessary exercise in power projection done at the right time. India’s current global nuclear status involves negotiations about participating in various forums that seek to control spread of nuclear technology as well as allow responsible nuclear technology trade. This is a work in progress. But without Pokhran-II’s power projection and an impeccable record on nuclear responsibility, even this wouldn’t have happened.

Indeed, that power projection is crucial is clear from how forums like the Nuclear Suppliers Group bend to the will of major powers. China has basically made the group accept Beijing’s involvement in Islamabad’s nuclear plans. Pakistan, not to make too fine a point, is not a fully responsible nuclear state.

This brings us to the second point, that India was right all along about the basic flaw of a nuclear containment strategy that treated all nuclear aspirants similarly.

Iran was offered a nuclear deal that lifted economic sanctions provided Tehran abandoned nuclear weaponisation. Trump is being critiqued for pulling the US out of the deal. But he has a point about verification processes not being fail safe. He’s also right to point out that the ban on Tehran’s uranium enrichment – a key requirement for making nukes – will end in 2030. What happens after that?

Basically the question is: Can you trust Iran, a theocratic dictatorship that has blood feuds with both Saudi Arabia and Israel? The trust question applies even more to Kim’s North Korea, which is a scary communist dictatorship.

Trump wants to frighten Kim into giving up his plans for developing long range nuclear missiles. But look at it from Kim’s point of view. If he gives up the nuclear option, what does he have? Iran’s ayatollahs have the same fear. They and Kim know dictators who have given up the nuclear option have met sorry ends when great powers have intervened.

The basic problem here is that autocratic regimes running countries as their fiefdoms see the nuclear option as a way to frighten all, bully some and hold on to power. Stable countries with sane governments see the nuclear option as a strategy in a power play where no one’s likely to be irresponsible.

That’s the difference between India and Iran/North Korea. That’s why Trump’s attempt to impose his own brand of non-proliferation is as likely to fail as earlier US government attempts. That’s why India is now a responsible nuclear weapons state.

Smiling Buddha was the code name for Pokhran tests. Seeing how decades of non-proliferation efforts have turned out and how India was right all along, Buddha will be chuckling today.