Though the former Prime Minister of India Atal Bihari Vajpayee wasn’t the first person under whose leadership India’s nuclear programme was initiated, he was but the most important leader who secured a strong position for India as a nuclear nation after a series of stints.
India’s nuclear programme had its origin in the year 1944 when Homi J. Bhabha established Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bombay and as soon as India got its freedom in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru authorized the development of the programme for peaceful purposes.
It was only when the Soviet refused to help India during the Indo-China war in 1962 and instead backed China that the need for India to create its very own nuclear deterrent became a necessity and Bhabha started to lobby for the development of nuclear weapons aggressively. It but suffered a setback when Nehru was succeeded by Lal Bahadur Shastri, who was a Gandhian and wanted the progress of the nuclear programme for peaceful purposes only and not for military actions.
Two years after being defeated in the Indo-China war, in 1964 when China became the fifth country in the world to carry out a nuclear test, Vajpayee, a Rajya Sabha MP at that time had said, “The answer to an atom bomb is an atom bomb, nothing else.” His comment was foreshadowing what was to come in the year 1998.
Operation Smiling Buddha (Pokhran I)
The need for nuclear weapons gained momentum once again after Indira Gandhi seized the government and on September 7, 1972 she authorized Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) to prepare a nuclear weapon and ready it for test despite of the fears of international pressures. It was code named ‘Operation Smiling Buddha’ and the device was detonated on May 18, 1972 in Pokhran. With this, India became the sixth country to have successfully tested a nuclear device after US, USSR, China, UK and France.
The period of submitting to international pressure
After the Pokhran test, many more tests were proposed but India really didn’t dare to conduct any because of fears of international sanctions. Reportedly, PV Narasimha Rao in the year 1995 had approved a nuclear test, but CIA found it out. He tried again for the same in 1996, just before elections, but once again the US was smart enough to detect the intentions and the mission was abandoned.
In May 1996, Vajpayee became the Prime Minister of a rocky coalition government but he was determined to go ahead with more nuclear tests. Immediately after forming the government he sent for Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, the secretary of Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO). Sadly, his intentions fell apart as the coalition government fell within 13 days.
Operation Shakti (Pokhran II)
The year was 1998 when BJP managed to come back to power and Vajpayee returned to do the job that he could not do last time.
Weeks after becoming the Prime Minister once again, he sent for Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) chief R Chidambaram and DRDO chief APJ Abdul Kalam and asked them to prepare for tests that were going to upset the powerful countries and Pakistan but Vajpayee had set his mind and could not be stopped.
The operation was code named ‘Operation Shakti’ and was carried out in utmost secrecy. It was done so perfectly that India was this time able to outsmart USA . Even Defense Minister George Fernandes was informed about the tests only on May 9, one day before the test was to take place.
The scientists and the small team that knew about the tests moved at nights to avoid US spy satellites. They guised themselves in army uniforms, complete with assumed false names. Even the nuclear devices were brought to the location in discreet trucks from different places.
On the D-day, i.e., May 11, after the wind had died, at about 3.45 pm, three nuclear weapons (Shakti I, Shakti II and Shakti III) were detonated. Since the day was cloudy, the US satellites could detect nothing much.
Later that day Vajpayee broke the news to the world and the whole world’s attention was immediately on India. On May 13, two more devices Shakti IV and Shakti V were detonated.
The aftermath of Pokhran II
As expected, the world jumped to condemn the dare of India. The US said it was ‘deeply disappointed’ by the act. Germany described it as ‘a slap on the face’. In the subsequent times, sanctions were slapped against India by the US, the West and many other countries but India had successfully secured a strong position as a nuclear nation and the world knew that the genie had escaped the lamp.
In the Lok Sabha later that year, Vajpayee defended the tests saying that it was done for national security and questioned those who opposed the move if India should begin to prepare itself only when danger is near. He said that if India was well prepared, it could take care of any danger in the future. He also clarified that India would not use nuclear weapons first and neither it would use them on countries that don’t have them.
Though India had suffered sanctions after the tests, it but emerged nevertheless as a strong country that does things without the approval of others when it comes to its security. If it weren’t for Vajpayee, it would take many more years perhaps before we could have another test after ‘Operation Smiling Buddha’ in 1974.
Vajpayee, besides the many things that he did for the country, will always be remembered in the years to come for his farsightedness, ability to take risks and making India a nuclear super power with five tests at once and securing a strong position for India as a nuclear nation.