How BJP Came to Power 20 Yrs Ago With the Promise of Nuclear Tests

China is still obstructing India’s final entry into NSG, insisting on Pakistan’s membership alongside India’s.

4 min read

International response to India’s first nuclear test of May 1974, though declared a ‘nuclear implosion’ for peaceful purposes, was quite severe. The world ganged up against us, as it were.

Six major countries – the US, UK, Soviet Union, France, Germany and Canada – formed what was initially called the ‘London Club’ and met in November 1975, and declared a technology embargo on India.

This was the precursor to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), presently a group of 48 member countries that seeks to prevent export of technology, equipment and nuclear fuel or other dual-use items to countries that are not signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

India is a not a signatory to either the NPT or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), as it considers both of them to be discriminatory in their present form, in that they are advantageous to the nuclear weapon states.


Aborted Tests & Finally Crossing the Rubicon

Our nuclear program struggled for years to gain credibility and its progress was crippled by the lack of indigenous resources, imported technology and technical assistance. Successive governments in India decided to observe this temporary moratorium for fear of inviting international isolation and opprobrium.

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The Indian scientific community and the strategic community (including generals and the public) were supportive of further nuclear tests to decisively cross the nuclear threshold.

This persuaded then Prime Minister Narsimha Rao to go for further tests in 1995. However, the plans had to be suddenly aborted after American spy satellites picked up signs of preparations at the Pokhran Test Range. President Bill Clinton and his administration exerted enormous pressure on Narsimha Rao to abandon the preparations.

Within three years, the country’s mood had changed. During the 1998 general elections, BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee openly declared his party’s intention to carry out nuclear tests.

The party manifesto asserted its right to "exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons" and that "India should openly become a nuclear power to garner the respect on the world stage that India deserved."

The BJP came to power in 1998.

Within months of coming to office, PM Vajpayee began consultations with Dr Abdul Kalam, Dr R Chidambaram and officials of the DAE on nuclear options. Chidambaram briefed PM Vajpayee extensively on the nuclear program, and Abdul Kalam presented the status of the missile program.

On 28 March 1998, PM Vajpayee asked the scientists to make preparations in the shortest time possible, and preparations were hastily made. The rest is history.

Sanctions & Final Acceptance of India’s Ambivalent Status

Then US President Bill Clinton strongly condemned the tests and the American Congress triggered a host of sanctions that affected not only our technology trade but also funding from the World Bank and the IMF for our economic development. The European countries and the UN too joined the sanctions.

Within about five years, most of the sanctions were lifted, but the turning point came with the ‘India-US Civil Nuclear Deal’ in 2005 signed by President George Bush Jr, with PM Manmohan Singh.

By July 2006, the US Congress amended its laws to accommodate civilian nuclear trade with India. In a meeting on 6 September 2008, at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, the NSG participating governments agreed to grant India a "clean waiver" from its existing rules, which forbid nuclear trade with a country that has not signed the NPT.

The NSG's decision came after three days of intense Indian and US diplomacy. The approval was based on a formal pledge by India stating that it would not share sensitive nuclear technology or material with others and would uphold its voluntary moratorium on testing nuclear weapons. The pledge was made in a crucial statement issued by our then Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee during the NSG meeting, by outlining our disarmament and nonproliferation policies.

The author was present at the historic meeting in Vienna, when the then NSA Shiv Shankar Menon, PM’s Special Envoy Shyam Sharan and the Chairman of Indian Atomic Energy Commission Dr Anil Kakodkar convinced and lobbied hard with the outliers for 3 days and nights.

But for the consistent support of the then DG IAEA, Mohammed El Baradai, a great friend of India, and without the heavy lifting done by the American diplomats in pressuring the last remaining European objectors and China, India would not have got the ‘clean waiver’.

The final entry into the NSG, however, is still obstructed by China insisting on Pakistan (a confirmed proliferator) too getting the membership along with India.

(The author served as a diplomat in Maldives. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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