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Two blind mice - The Telegraph

K. P. Nayar ()
June 3, 1998

Title: Two blind mice
Author: K. P. Nayar
Publication: The Telegraph
Date: June 3, 1998

This Is the untold story of what happened to India's nuclear bomb
after the prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, left office in
1996 without testing a weapon, only because 13 days in power were
insufficient to undertake another Pokhran.

The scientists and engineers whom Vajpayee had consulted about a
possible test during the shortlived Bharatiya Janata Party
government were delighted that at last, logic was beginning to
prevail in India's nuclear policy.

So when H.D. Deve Gowda succeeded Vajpayee in South Block, the
very same scientists and engineers put together a presentation on
India's nuclear and missile capabilities for the new prime
minister. They hoped that Deve Gowda would see reason and go
ahead with the test, which could only be delayed at India's
peril, and free India's missile development programme from the
constraints which had been thoughtlessly imposed on it by the
previous Congress government.

The effect of the presentation on the "humble farmer" was
mesmerizing. Deve Gowda told several close friends from his
humble days in Karnataka how he felt after the officials had gone
into great detail on the implications of India's nuclear and
missile programme.

"You know, there is a lot more I can do as prime minister than I
could do as chief minister of Karnataka," Deve Gowda told one
close friend, no longer regretting that he had to give up power
in Bangalore to move to New Delhi.

In hindsight, it is a frightening thought that the man who is now
the most vocal among opposition politicians in criticizing
Pokhran II actually boasted to his long time pals in June 1996
that he could destroy Islamabad in six minutes.

Those were the days when Deve Gowda used to go round calling on
former prime ministers, former Union ministers and former chief
ministers who had subsequently become members of parliament in
New Delhi.

One day in the third week of June 1996, Deve Gowda called on
Vajpayee at the latter's residence on Raisina Road. Deve Gowda
was still spellbound by the thought that he could - as Josef
Stalin once said about Josip Broz Tito - wave his little finger
and Islamabad would be no more. He asked Vajpayee for his advice
on nuclear policy.

In response, Vajpayee told Deve Gowda he should go ahead with a
test and promised without the slightest hesitation that the BJP
would support the United Front government on that issue.

Deve Gowda went home from that meeting and consulted two members
of the cabinet in whom he had complete trust - the railway
minister, Ram Vilas Paswan, and the civil aviation minister, C.M.
Ibrahim. Typically, both these men washed their hands of the
problem, honestly telling their prime minister they knew nothing
at all about the issue.

Deve Gowda then called two other ministers - the finance
minister, P. Chidambaram, and the external affairs minister, I.K.
Gujral - and sought their advice on what the scientists and
engineers had proposed: a nuclear test before, the conclusion of
the comprehensive test ban treaty negotiations. Not surprisingly,
both these ministers vehemently opposed any proposal for a
nuclear test.

At this point, Deve Gowda lost his nerve. Disappointed, he told
the atomic energy and defence research establishment that India
would continue to keep its nuclear options open and not exercise

Four days after India resumed nuclear testing under the second
Vajpayee government, Deve Gowda wrote a letter to Vajpayee
questioning the rationale of Pokhran II. That letter is a
testimony to the disappointment which Deve Gowda will have to
live with for the rest of his life, having missed the only
opportunity to rise from a humble farmer to a leader with a place
in India's post-independence history.

Now we move on to Deve Gouda's successor, I.K. Gujral, who
accused Vajpayee during last week's Lok Sabha debate on the
Pokhran tests of going in for nuclearization "purely for
political reasons." Gujral's arguments against the BJP led
government's nuclear policy during that debate do not merit any

But to understand Gujral's mindset and his rejection of nuclear
tests while in office, it is necessary to recall an incident
shortly after he advised Deve Gowda not to exercise the nuclear

In the third quarter of 1996, China felt confident enough to
suggest that a permanent solution of the Sino-Indian border
dispute should be attempted. This, Beijing felt, needed a
political initiative which would go beyond the joint working
group which was addressing the border issue at a different level
in the two governments.

Typically, the Chinese did not convey this to New Delhi through
diplomatic channels. Instead they conveyed this message through a
former foreign secretary, J.N. Dixit, taking advantage of his
presence at a seminar in Beijing.

Equally typically, when Dixit conveyed the Chinese message to
Gujral, the latter was completely flustered and rejected the
Chinese offer out of hand. Gujral was at his best propounding
high sounding "doctrines" from the podium of a Vigyan Bhavan
conference hall or from the presiding chair of the India
International Centre's Saturday Club.

Exploding a nuclear device or a historic initiative with China
requires greater courage and conviction than propounding a
doctrine, whose Inevitable failure, in any case, can be
conveniently blamed on the realistic policies of the next
government: in this case, the BJP led administration.

If only Gujral had risen to the challenge of responding to the
message which Dixit carried from Tang Jiaxuan - who subsequently
replaced Qian Qichen as foreign minister - it may not have been
necessary for the present defence minister, George Fernandes, to
fulminate against China as a potential threat to India.

It is not inconceivable that between 1996 and 1998, India and
China may have been locked in serious, progressively fruitful
negotiations on a permanent settlement of the border question. In
that case, Vajpayee may well have found it difficult to make the
kind references about China, which he did, in his letter to the
United States president, Bill Clinton, last month: a letter which
was diabolically leaked by the Americans to the New York Times as
a way of cozying up to China in the runup to Clinton's visit to

The attack on the Vajpayee government's nuclear policy by two of
Vajpayee's immediate predecessors is a sad reminder that critics
of Pokhran II essentially fall into two categories. Like Deve
Gowda, there are those who were part of the political process in
this country who had an opportunity to make a historic
contribution to the logical culmination of India's nuclear policy
They now recognize in the BJP led government's actions that they
have missed the bus.

Then there are others, like Gujral, whose sole motivation for
crafting a policy was the craving for a place in history. They
now see that the castles which they built in the air have
collapsed and that Indians have no tears to shed for them. They
too realize that they have let an opportunity slip through their
hands, only because they lacked courage and conviction.

In the long run, the real threat to what Vajpayee initiated on
May 11 in Pokhran does not come from the White House or from the
enclosed compound in the heart of Beijing where the men who run
China live. It comes from those politicians in India who feel
that their chance for glory has been usurped by the BJP.

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