Thanks to Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s close friendship with former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao, the BJP stalwart had an inkling that the US would be lobbying to deny him premiership in the event of a hung Lok Sabha after the 1996 general elections. Washington’s apathy towards Vajpayee was clearly reflected in some declassified e mails sent to Washington by the US embassy in New Delhi.
One such mail was based on the notes prepared by the US embassy from a conversation between Vajpayee and the then US ambassador to India Frank Wisner, which took place prior to the 1996 elections.
In his report to Washington, Wisner had disfavoured Vajpayee as the next Indian Prime Minister because “from the “body language of the BJP’s future PM Vajpayee there was an indication that he would favour a (nuclear)test”.
Before the non-BJP parties could zero in on a consensus alternative choice, the then President Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma appointed Vajpayee as the PM and asked him to prove his majority on the floor of the House.
Former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao was certainly pleased with the President’s decision. But he knew what was in store for his friend Vajpayee. Without losing much time he quietly passed on a chit to Vajpayee at the Rashtrapati Bhavan swearing-in ceremony which said “now is the time to accomplish my unfinished task”. The task Rao had failed to accomplish during his premiership was nothing but nuclear rests at Pokhran.
But before Vajpayee could go ahead with the requisite preparations for the historic task of declaring India a nuclear power he was ousted from office. Rao himself was a victim of the US pressure tactics to prevent Indian Nuclear tests during his tenure as PM.
According to some of the classified documents released by National Security Archive (NSA) and Nuclear Proliferation International History Project (NPIHP), Washington kept a close watch over the Indian test site and made serious efforts to head-off a feared test. Surveillance by US intelligence of at Pokhran was very intense, according to these documents.
The US intelligence agencies, according to these classified US documents, now in public domain, detected signs of India’s nuclear test preparations at Pokhran sometime towards the end of 1995. According to one of these documents, after satellite imagery made it clear that India was planning a nuclear test, Ambassador Wisner warned the Rao’s office that such a move would backfire.
Wisner also met PM Rao’s principal secretary AN Varma, and showed him a satellite photograph of the test site and warned that a test would “backfire” against India. Later sometime in mid-December, President Bill Clinton spoke to Rao over phone and the PM assured him that India would act “responsibly”.
These documents also revealed that the US tried to use Japanese influence to stop India from going ahead with the nuclear test. PM Rao later decided against the nuclear tests. And perhaps that was the reason why he gave the go-ahead message while handing over baton to Vajpayee in 1996.
Between 1996 and 1998, the two successive prime ministers HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral could not even think of any nuclear tests. After the 1998 mid-term elections, Vajpayee returned to the saddle heading a coalition NDA government and the first thing he did was to order nuclear tests at Pokhran on May 11 and 13, 1998, a delicate task which the Indian scientists accomplished with precision putting India in the elite global nuclear club. No wonder why his government collapsed within a year of the Pokhran tests which were followed by severe economic sanctions by most western powers.
According to the classified documents, the US intelligence establishment was taken by surprise by the success of the Indian agencies to maintain utmost secrecy and the manner they deceived the US intelligence.
These documents concede that “satellite imagery could have provided early warning but it was not analysed in time”. The US intelligence also admitted in these documents that having learned from the 1995 experience, the Indians, under strict instructions from Vajpayee’s National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra, had hidden their test preparations through a deception campaign, including far better concealment of the activities at Pokhran.
Vajpayee regime not only battled the tough economic sanctions but also withstood internal as well as external onslaughts. His victory in the Kargil conflict and apt handling of the Indian Airlines hijacking earned him laurels across the globe and people back home, in the mid-term polls that followed, gave his NDA a fresh and decisive mandate to rule for full five years term—a feat not enjoyed by any other non-Congress Prime Minister so far.
(Ashok Tandon is a former advisor to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Views expressed are personal)