India was the clear winner of the diplomatic duel that followed with the United States in the wake of the Pokhran nuclear tests in May 1998, according to former deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration, Strobe Talbott.
Talbott and former external affairs minister Jaswant Singh were the main protagonists of the US-India strategic dialogue that followed the tests.
"We Americans do have to recognise that there is at least one awkward and inescapable fact about this whole episode of diplomatic history. And that is that insofar as diplomacy is a contest of wills or a clash of objectives, insofar as it has win-lose or zero-sum aspect to it, India got what it wanted and the United States did not," said Talbott, currently president of the Brookings Institution, who was the featured luncheon speaker on Thursday at a conference titled 'US-India Bilateral Cooperation: Taking Stock and Moving Forward', organised by the Sigur Centre for Asian Studies of the George Washington University.
"The United States fundamentally and persistently disapproved of the BJP's government's decision to conduct Pokhran II tests and the last thing we wanted to do in conducting a dialogue with India was in any way to reward them -- that is the Indians -- for having conducted the tests or to vindicate their decision of having done so.
"And yet, Indians going nuclear, or going nuclear in a declared and unambiguous way in May of 1998, provided an impulse -- I would even say the impulse for a diplomatic engagement -- that brought relations out of a half-century long rut. And I say that's a tad awkward for us but we have to simply live with that.
"And to take it further, part of India's motive in conducting the test was to blast its way into America's full attention. In other words, to simultaneously stand up to the United States and sit down with the United States and to a very real extent India succeeded in this," he said.
He argued that there are several reasons why "we have seen this extraordinary and generally speaking very welcome resurgence of national self-confidence on India's part in recent years and there are factors that play into that, which both predate the BJP government and certainly have nothing to do with Pokhran II.
"[Former Indian finance minister] Manmohan Singh and the modernisation and reform of the Indian economy have a lot to do with the new level of self-confidence. But there's no question that Pokhran II played its own part in this and that needs to be analysed and recognised as such, including by those of us who continue to believe that the tests was a mistake."
Talbott said that it was because of this dialogue that the US was able to convince India and Pakistan to eschew going to war in the wake of the Kargil crisis.
"I think India and Pakistan came quite close to the brink of nuclear war on that occasion," he said. "That was most vividly brought home to us when on the eve of [then Pakistani prime minister] Nawaz Sharief's arrival [in Washington on July 4, 1999]-- his uninvited but accepted arrival -- we had reliable information that Pakistan might be preparing its nuclear forces for deployment and the sense of that nearly unprecedented peril was not in any way alleviated, when it emerged during the course of the talks that the prime minister of Pakistan did not seem to be completely aware of everything that might be going on in his own country and in his own military establishment at that time."
Talbott said the other "great positive, of course, the dialogue contributed to was President Clinton's visit to India in March of 2000, which was a true turning point" in US-India relations.