PV Narasimha Rao and the Bomb

Credit where it is due

The late P V Narasimha Rao (1921-2004) will probably be best remembered for the unleashing India’s economic potential when India’s license-raj was jettisoned under his watch. In the early 1990s, he provided the much needed political cover to Dr Manmohan Singh and the reform team as they tore down the contortions that passed off as economic policy.

But, as former prime minister Vajpayee revealed, Rao’s national security legacy was no less important.

Participating at a writers’ meet in Gwalior, a somewhat emotional Vajpayee said that when he took over as prime minister in 1996 (the 13-day stint), Rao gave him a small piece of paper. When he unfolded it, he was surprised to read “bomb is ready you can go ahead.”

“Rao had asked me not to make it public, but today when he is dead and gone, I wish to place the record straight.”

He added: “Rao told me that the bomb is ready. I exploded it. I did not miss the opportunity.”

Vajpayee said he never blamed the Congress on this count. “They too wanted a strong India to counter Pakistan and China. In foreign policy matters, they never lacked commitment,” he said. “But they might be having some problems.”[Daily Times (emphasis mine)]

The decision to go nuclear in 1988 was secret. The question after Rajiv Gandhi was when and how India would come out of the nuclear closet. Every nuclear programme faces its most dangerous moments in its initial phases. That precisely is what Rao confronted in 1991. The end of the Cold War and the international concerns on non-proliferation resulted in relentless pressures from the US to cap India’s nuclear programme.

Rao’s mandate to his foreign secretary J.N. Dixit (1991-94) was to buy time and space for India’s bomb programme.

Together Rao and Dixit, now the national security adviser, devised a variety of diplomatic strategems to resist international pressures without confronting the US head-on and thus gained valuable time for Indian scientists to come up with a credible programme of nuclear tests, including the Hydrogen bomb.

The appointed day arrived in mid-December 1995. The nuclear devices were already put into the L-shaped hole dug for the purpose in Pokhran desert. The Ministries of External Affairs and Finance had estimated of the costs of US sanctions that would have followed. The officer in the MEA specialising in the nuclear issue had a prepared statement in his drawer justifying India’s decision.

As US satellite pictures began to show Indian preparations for the test, the New York Times broke the story about India’s plans to test on December 15. After two days, India finally declared it had no intention to test.Had Rao tested in 1995, India’s political history might have been different. With elections due in mid-1996, the nuclear card could have possibly returned Rao to power. Yet, inexplicably Rao chose not to. Some say he succumbed to US pressure. Others say he was concerned about Pakistan’s reaction and the economic consequences.[C Raja Mohan/IE]

3 thoughts on “PV Narasimha Rao and the Bomb”

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  2. PVN should also be remembered for taking the wind out of the “Hindutva” sails when the ‘movement’ was at its peak by letting the Babri Masjid be demolished. With all these 24-hour news channels around just imagine the dividends the communal forces would have had if the Masjid still stood. A modern day Chanakya indeed.

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