It was 1998, India was recovering from a series of wobble governance and country like China was taking a big leap in development. US had developed close ties with Pakistan which was a cause of great concern to India. India had to bounce back on all fronts and had to put a brave face in the world.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee who had sworn in as the Prime Minister had huge responsibility on his shoulder and less time. There was one aspect on which the Vajpayee had to immediate decision, that was Nuclear tests. India which was capable of being a nuclear superpower since the time of 1960, due to various political reasons had backed out itself from all nuclear programs. Obviously, it was the non commitment and lack of interest of then Prime Minister Nehru which made India suffer immensely in the Nuclear programs. However, Indira Gandhi in May 18, 1974 had conducted the first Nuclear test in Pokhran which set the record. But nearly 30 years after that India was made to distance itself from all Neclear programs due to political interference.
But Vajpayee was very clear that if India fails to conduct nuclear programs then, it would never be possible in the future. According to Anil Kakodar, who was the Nuclear Scientist and director of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre when India conducted nuclear tests in Pokhran in May 1998, 1998 Nuclear tests were of great importance to India to prove its capability and importance in the global platform.
In his interview to Indian Express, he says that the global nuclear governance set-up after the second world war had the NPT (Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty) as its basis and it had divided the world into the P-5 and others. But India, though fully embedded to the peaceful uses of atomic energy, was not very happy with this discriminatory world. Given the volatile condition, in 1990’s the CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) agreement came into existence. This was a tricky situation for India. If CTBT agreement was signed, that would have brought an end to all nuclear programs in the country. If we did not sign, then questions would rise on the reason for refusing. Though India never had the intention to misuse any of its nuclear weapons to dominate over other countries, it was important for us to have them for the country’s safety.
After 1974 Pokhran test, Pakistan had initiated talks with China and was already procuring nuclear weapons from them. China was sharing technology and materials with Pakistan, and it was public knowledge. The Indian armed forces knew very well that the Pakistan Army had nuclear weapons. And so, there was this situation in which India was faced with two nuclear capable adversaries. It was too risky for India to fight two countries with nuclear power.
The CTBT was important factor which made India take a decision. Moreover there was pressure from China, America which did not want India to go ahead with Nuclear programs as they knew India would grow powerful. A factor which bothered America since 1960’s.
Anil Kakodar, said, The big challenge was how to secure maximum gains for the country in terms of data collection and validating the weapon design capabilities so that we would not have to test again. I was very conscious that we had only one chance. There are people who say that scientifically you must have the option to test again … but that is, you know, if wishes were horses…. I was very clear in my mind that this was our only chance. Because I knew what will happen after the tests are done
Atal Bihari Vajpayee along with the Missile man of India Bharat Ratna APJ Abdul Kalam took a brave decision to go ahead with the Nuclear tests. Finally in May 11 and 13, 1998, India conducted 5 nuclear tests at the Pokhran range in Rajasthan. The first three detonations took place simultaneously at 3.45pm on May 11. These included a 45 kT thermonuclear device, a 15kt fission device and a 0.2 kt sub-kiloton (which is less than a kiloton) device. The two nuclear devices detonated simultaneously on May 13 were also in the sub-kiloton range, 0.5 kT and 0.3 kT (Hindustan Times).
With all the oppositions from within and outside, the test happened months after then foreign secretary K Raghunath told his US counterpart that India did not have any intention of testing a nuclear device. The test was a completely a secret decision and only 5 people knew about it.
Lalit Mansingh was secretary (west) in the external affairs ministry in May 1998 recalls that the tests“It was certainly the biggest challenge Indian foreign policy establishment faced in a long, long time.”
The biggest trouble came from US as India had to renegotiate talks with US to re-bridge the trust gap. US was so very unhappy with India’s nuclear tests that it had suspended foreign secretary-level talks; over the following two years, it put more than 200 Indian entities under the sanctions list. The list included facilities of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), and entities of Department of Space, but also a clutch of private sector firms that had worked for them.
The main issue what bothered US was that India turning into a nuclear power, they feared South Asia would become a nuclear flashpoint and wanted to desperately stop it.
But Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and his strong team with APJ Abdul Kalam and Jeorge Fernandes were mainly responsible to take a brave decision on Nuclear tests which set the tone for India’s nuclear program. They changed the way how world looked at India and despite all odds went ahead to make India a powerful Nation.
Hats off to the great men!