Narasimha Rao carried his nuclear secrets to his grave
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April 06, 2015 10:37 IST
'If Rao had, in fact, given a word to President Clinton in 1994 that India would not test, he would not have encouraged Vajpayee to test.'
'The note, said to have been handed over to Vajpayee by Rao with the words, "Now is the time to accomplish my unfinished task" may not have been a reference to the nuclear tests at all.'
'Rao's place in history will be among the makers of modern India. He was undoubtedly the architect of India's policies in the new unipolar world. It is heartening to see that a grateful nation is finally giving him his rightful place,' says Ambassador T P Sreenivasan.
Ashok Tandon's revelation that it was former prime minister P V Narasimha Rao who encouraged Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to order the nuclear tests in 1998 does not tally with the circumstantial evidence available and the conversation I had with Rao after the nuclear tests.
Though Rao insisted that he would carry his nuclear secrets to his grave, he told me that the tests of 1998 were unnecessary as he had found a way out of India's dilemma during his meeting in Washington with President Bill Clinton in 1994.
The popular belief is that Rao kept debating about the desirability of a nuclear test throughout his time as PM, primarily because of the constant prodding by both Dr R Chidambaram and A P J Abdul Kalam.
According to that school of thought, Rao was very much on the verge of a test in 1995, when then US Ambassador Frank Wisner confronted him with some satellite photographs to show certain activities in Pokhran and warned him of sweeping economic sanctions in the event of a test. President Clinton is said to have spoken personally to Rao to dissuade him from testing in 1995.
However, the account of the events of that time by Raj Chengappa in Weapons of Peace presents a different picture. According to Chengappa, Rao had no intention to test in 1995, though he had asked Dr Chidambaram and Kalam to keep everything in readiness to carry out the tests in the shortest possible time.
In 1995, one of the shafts, which was opened for preparation, was found to be filled up with water three fourths of the way to the top. The unusual activity that the US satellite picked up in November 1995 was the repair work that was undertaken at that time.
Rao's reply to Wisner was that he should tell his President 'I always keep my word.' The truth is that Rao never cleared the tests, says Chengappa.
In March 1999, I had two long conversations with Rao at Washington airport on his way to Boston and back. He was weak, but his memory and mind were as sharp as ever. He was in a contemplative mood and appeared to be ready to open his heart.
Having worked with him at multilateral meetings ever since he became the external affairs minister, I decided to get him to clear the air on the story of his decision-making on nuclear tests.
An opportunity presented itself, when he asked me how the American reaction was to the tests. I asked him whether he had stopped the tests in 1995 after President Clinton spoke to him. His reply was clear and sharp. He said there was no truth in that story and that he had decided in 1994 that India did not need nuclear tests.
This appeared too simplistic an explanation to me and I told him that subsequently, the US had declined a proposal from us that India and the US should make such a declaration in the UN.
The US had informed us in New York that any bilateral understanding of this nature could not be brought into the multilateral fora. At this point, Rao changed the subject and refused to be dragged into any further discussion on the subject.
If Rao had, in fact, given a word to President Clinton in 1994 that India would not test, as he told Ambassador Wisner, he would not have encouraged Vajpayee to test.
The note, said to have been handed over to Vajpayee by Rao with the words, 'Now is the time to accomplish my unfinished task' may not have been a reference to the nuclear tests at all.
It was well known that Rao and Vajpayee had an exceptional equation, particularly on foreign affairs, as they were both in the Nehru mould.
Vajpayee was sent every year to the UN and it was Vajpayee, who headed the Indian delegation to the Human Rights Commission in Geneva, when Pakistan launched an initiative to pass a resolution on Jammu and Kashmir there in 1993.
Rao may well have expected Vajpayee to accomplish his unfinished task in general.
As for the word Rao had given to President Clinton in 1994, the details have gone to the grave with Rao. Interestingly, in our many conversations with the Americans after the tests, no one mentioned the commitment given by Rao.
Rao's place in history will be among the makers of modern India. The end of the Cold War posed unprecedented challenges to India, including a certain nostalgia about the Soviet Union, which was reflected in Rao's reaction to some signs of return to the old days. But his erudition and sense of realism enabled him to shape a new political and economic profile for India.
Rao was undoubtedly the architect of India's policies in the new unipolar world. It is heartening to see that a grateful nation is finally giving him his rightful place in the galaxy of India's great leaders.
T P Sreenivasan, (IFS 1967), is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA. He is Executive Vice-Chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council and Director General, Kerala International Centre.
You can read Ambassador Sreenivasan's earlier columns here.