Rao's death opens India's nuclear cupboard

Thursday, 30 December 2004, 08:00 Hrs
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NEW DELHI: A week after his death, it is becoming increasingly clear that former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao was the man who took India's nuclear weaponisation to the threshold - before backing off.

Sources privy to the preparations that preceded India's nuclear tests in 1998 that stunned the world corroborated former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's revelation that it is Rao, who died here Dec 23, who should get the credit for the tests.

Vajpayee said Rao told him about the near final preparations his government had made to conduct the tests but stopped at the threshold and urged him to go ahead and carry them out to the logical conclusion.

Vajpayee explained his silence over Rao's role saying that he had been requested by his predecessor not to say anything about it. Now that he was no more, he thought it was only fair to give credit where it was due.

Thus the reality of the Indian bomb is that the country's two main political parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had played an equally important role in it.

India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, an internationally acclaimed pacifist and a proponent of peace and disarmament, did not give up the country's right to nuclear weapons.

When China conducted its first test in 1964, the ruling Congress, at its plenary session in Durgapur the next year, passed a resolution demanding that India develop its own bomb.

In 1974, then prime minister Indira Gandhi conducted what was called a "peaceful nuclear explosion," in the Pokhran desert in Rajasthan that was nicknamed Pokhran I.

Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded her, decided that India must become a nuclear power and the programme remained on track during the tenures of his successors - V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar, H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral.

When Rao took over in 1991 as the Cold War era ended he was confronted with the same problem his predecessors faced on the nuclear question - how to proceed with the programme in the face of the relentless pressure from the US to cap it.

Despite the pressure Rao, according to the sources, told his then foreign secretary, J.N. Dixit, who is now national security advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, to buy time in the various protracted international negotiations on nuclear non-proliferation issues so that India could develop and test its bomb.

The two together bought valuable time for Indian scientists to prepare for a programme of credible nuclear tests, including the hydrogen bomb, without directly confronting the US.

The D-day was supposed to be in mid-December 1995. All preparations were complete and the nuclear devices were in place in the L-shaped hole in the desert. And New Delhi was all ready to face the international outcry that was sure to greet the tests.

US satellites captured the preparations for the tests and The New York Times reported it on Dec 15.

India vacillated for two days before declaring that it had no intention to test.

The sources would not however say why Rao did not still go ahead with the tests, particularly since he could have reaped a political windfall that would have surely brought him and his party another term in office and roughed out the international outrage, like Vajpayee did.

According to a senior official who was privy to some of the goings-on at the time, Rao became a victim of "moral reticence" and backed off. With elections also a year away, he did not want to be seen as going in for the tests as a "political gimmick" to win votes.

Moreover, sections of the government did not think it would be able to withstand the economic fallout from the sanctions that would inevitably follow such tests, giving the precarious balance of payments position obtaining at that time.

According to the official, even I.K. Gujral, who was prime minister for a brief while in 1997-98, had toyed with the idea of capitalizing on the preparations to test a bomb and thereby earning valuable brownie points for his shaky government, but was dissuaded from doing so by his senior aides who felt his government was not strong enough to handle its political and diplomatic fallout.

"There was no way the Vajpayee government could have gone ahead with the stunning tests if the preparations had not been completed by the previous Rao administration," said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The scientists told Vajpayee that all they needed was two weeks and a murky sky to cloud the final preparations from prying satellites and that's how the first test was conducted on May 11, 1998, two months after Vajpayee took over as prime minister for the second time.

Source: IANS
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