After completing the herculean task of making India a nuclear power, the then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao deferred the testing of nuclear weapons due to the proximity of the May 1996 elections, choosing not to conduct the tests and not trumpet the achievement for electoral gains.
Instead, he decided to silently pass the mission onto the hands of his successor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who openly acknowledged that Rao had laid the groundwork for the nuclear programme and that he (Vajpayee) had just test fired it.
Prime Minister Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, are you listening?
Rao had been a part of the decision-making process to establish India as a nuclear power for a long time from his days as the foreign minister to his tenure as the prime minister.
It is a scientific and historical fact that India became a nuclear power in 1993, during the period of a Congress minority government under the balanced and analytical leadership of the dhoti-kurta clad statesman Rao. Never one to crave undue publicity, rich attires or to boast of his defence successes for political exploits, Narasimha Rao and his vision for India are owed a lot for what India is today in the nuclear field.
The chapter “Going Nuclear” in Vinay Senapati’s famous book ‘Half Lion” – a biography of P.V. Narasimha Rao – explains his historic role. When Indira Gandhi authorised the testing of a nuclear fission device on May 18, 1974, it was the first major decisive step towards the goal, but at that time, India did not have the missiles or aircraft to deliver nuclear heads to the targets. Without the ability to put the bomb, missile and plane together, the nuclear programme would not have been complete.
Rajiv Gandhi permitted the scientists to do precisely that, with utmost secrecy. Before he became prime minister in 1991, Rao was one of the few politicians who knew about the nuclear weapons programme. By that time, Pakistan was pursuing its own weapons programme with the help of China and others.
V.S. Arunachalam, a nuclear technologist, estimated that Pakistan could make ten atomic bombs. Amidst growing international pressure on India to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1970, Rao was heading a minority government while the BJP was strongly demanding that India go nuclear without wasting time. Rao could not have ignored these internal and international pressures.
Vinay Senapati says, “The prime minister needed to be ferocious as well as conciliatory. He needed to be half a lion”. Fortunately, Rao was half a lion. Instead of proceeding with the testing, Rao examined the possible effects of economic sanctions that threatened to follow a nuclear test.
One DRDO scientist was quoted in the book saying:
“The usual criticism of [of Rao] was ‘analysis till paralysis’. But I didn’t find that. He would sit and analyse with me. Once we reached a decision… he would go through [with it]’.”
On February 1993, the Prithvi 1 was successfully test launched. It was designed to carry a nuclear load to Islamabad and other Pakistani cities. Ronen Sen says, “…In 1993 we tested our ability to deliver. This is the day India became a nuclear power.”
Prithvi-1 tests were followed by the successful Agni missile tests of February 1994. The Agni missile had a longer range than Prithvi-1 covering both Pakistan as well as parts of China. In the mid-1980s Rao had overseen the final acquisition of Mirage-2000 planes from France. In May 1994, twenty years after India’s first nuclear test, a Mirage plane was fitted with a nuclear weapon. The plane flew to Balasore (missile test site) in Orissa and successfully dropped the bomb on the designated target.
The US protested the deployment of the Prithvi missile into the army. Rao postponed the deployment as he resisted US pressure to sign the NPT during his visit in 1994 saying that India would not sign any agreement that allowed only some countries to keep their weapons. After a month, Rao silently added the Prithvi missiles to the army.
He was ‘nara’ (human) when he dealt with international powers in a conciliatory form and a ‘simha’ (lion) when he strengthened the Indian army without the aid of publicity unlike some of his successors.
Cautioning the nuclear scientists about the US satellite surveillance, Rao in 1995 encouraged them to continue their work. India was ready to conduct tests in Pokhran between December 1995 and February 1996. The process was ready for Rao’s explicit approval at four different points: T-30 (30days before testing), T-7, T-3 and finally T-1 (one day before). Abdul Kalam wrote to PM’s eyes only to conduct tests while negotiating on CTBT. At T-7 i.e., a week before the bomb was placed in an L shaped shaft at Pokhran.
On December 15, 1995 the New York Times reported the presence of scientific activity at Pokhran. After a week, US Ambassador to India Frank Wisner went to the prime minister with satellite photos showing ‘activity’ which foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee denied. Later, US President Bill Clinton called Rao and said, “We are happy to note a clear statement that the government of India is not testing. But Mr Prime Minister, what is this that our cameras picked up?’ Rao replied by saying, ‘This is only a routine maintenance of facilities’, and further added, “there is right now no plan to explode. But yes, we are ready. We have the capability”.
In March, Clinton called and urged Rao to desist from testing, which proves that Rao was actively considering conducting tests. Kalam and the other nuclear scientists were ready to conduct tests. But Rao did not resort to the unethical act of conducting nuclear tests during elections which were scheduled for May 1996. When Vajpayee took over as the PM on May 16, 1996, Rao, Abdul Kalam and R Chidambaram went to meet the new PM.
What happened then was revealed by none other than Vajpayee, “When I succeeded Rao as prime minister in May 1996, he said the bomb was already in place. I have just test fired it.” He quoted Rao’s exact words by saying, ‘Everything is ready, you can go ahead’.
Vajpayee, also a statesman, withheld the testing of the nuclear weapons as it was clear that his minority government would not last long. Only after he came back in 1998 as the Prime Minister, did he conduct the nuclear tests. Rao’s magnanimity in letting Vajpayee revel in the glory of the nuclear tests is telling. Abdul Kalam said, it “reveals the maturity and professional excellence of a patriotic statesman who believed that the nation is bigger than the political system”.
Truly, the father of nuclear power in India, Rao behaved like a statesman. Otherwise, he could have conducted the tests at time to extract maximum electoral gains. The test was just an indication of the ‘finality’ of along drawn efforts and a vision of dedicated patriots.
Conducting the test of an anti-satellite missile in addition to using a televised address to make the announcement before elections was a clear misuse of power. It seems that for Modi and Shah, not only Rao but even Vajpayee was not a model.
M. Sridhar Acharyulu is a former Central Information Commissioner and professor of Constitutional Law at Bennett University.