Vajpayee: The man who made India a nuclear power

Last Updated 16 August 2018, 14:59 IST

It was a late afternoon on May 11, 1998, when the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee addressed a hurriedly called press conference at his Race Course Road residence to announce that India had conducted three underground nuclear tests in Pokhran.

The message had a significant departure from a similar announcement made by prime minister Indira Gandhi 24-years-ago when she spoke on the first nuclear test at Pokhran in 1974.

Vajpayee did not use the word “peaceful” to describe the explosion of a 45 kilotonne thermonuclear device, better known as a Hydrogen-bomb, a 12 kilotonne fission device and a third low-yield device.

Two days later, scientists tested two more sub-kilotonne devices and a day later Vajpayee declared to the world, “India is now a nuclear weapon state,” setting up a new global order.

As nations were coming to terms with the shock and awe, Vajpayee told Parliament that India was imposing a voluntary moratorium on further tests.

The prime minister also assured that India would not be the first to carry out a nuclear strike and would always follow a No-First-Use doctrine. Besides the nuclear weapons would never be used against a non-nuclear state and remain under civilian control.

All these assurances were the foundation of a new nuclear doctrine that was formulated a few years later, paving the way for the creation of the Nuclear Command Authority headed by the prime minister to handle the N-weapons, unlike the previous informal arrangement.

What is little known is the fact that Vajpayee wanted to go ahead with the nuclear test even during his 13-day stint as the prime minister.

According to the accounts narrated by journalist Raj Chengappa in his book 'Weapon of Peace', Vajpayee was willing to do the test even during his short-lived tenure in 1996 and instructed the then DRDO chief A P J Abdul Kalam to prepare for the test.

Scientists flew to Pokhran with the devices. But when he was laying down the office at the end of his 13-day government, Vajpayee told Kalam to put the N-test on hold and wait for the decision of the next two governments.

The two subsequent prime ministers H D Deve Gowda and Inder Kumar Gujaral did not give the permission for the test but continued with the preparatory work. Vajpayee got a second chance in 1998 when he returned as the prime minister.

Following detailed discussions with Kalam and then Atomic Energy Commission chairman R Chidambaram, Vajpayee gave the go-ahead for a series of tests in April as Kalam told him 30 days were required for the arrangement. Enough care was taken to ensure that the US did not come to know about the preparation and put pressure.

Vajpayee was one of the supporters of the 1974 test, but he did not endorse Indira Gandhi's idea of stopping with a solitary test and not making the weapons. Decades later, when he got a chance to alter the course of the history, he embraced the opportunity with both hands because he wished to see India as a strong nation, who couldn't be dictated by others.

Riding high on the Pokhran-II success, the saffron stalwart returned to the power for a full five-year term in October 1999 once his 13-month government collapsed in April 1999.

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(Published 16 August 2018, 12:35 IST)

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