watch An event India’s government and the media largely ignored on May 18, thanks to the cacophony of the Karnataka assembly elections, was the 20th anniversary of Pokhran-II, the nuclear tests conducted in the Rajasthan desert, making the whole world sit up and take note.
follow Today, it does not matter whether it was perceived as good or bad. It does not matter, although it was Buddha Purnima that day, whether Lord Buddha had smiled. Such was the geostrategic and geopolitical weight the event carried.
here For the first time that day when the media gathered at 7, Race Course Road, the prime minister’s residence, the national flag was pitched behind the podium, “It’s like they do in White House in Washington,” I told Mr S. Narendra, the then Principal Information Officer of the Government of India. He just smiled.
Little did any of us know that on that day India had actually cocked a snook at the White House. Indian scientists and the military had worked, avoiding the prying cameras of the CIA’s satellite to conduct three nuclear explosions. Two more were to follow.
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee made the historic announcement, with the tricolor up for the camera grabs, and left abruptly. I was among the many present left aghast and speechless. It took a few minutes for the media to rush for their telephones, cars and computers.
The world community came crashing down with sanctions. India weathered them. It was less than two years before US President Bill Clinton visited India, beginning a forgive-but-not-forget process.
The tests did India and Indians proud. So much so that the Congress, then in the opposition, was forced to reverse its stand from criticizing the Vajpayee Government to reminding everyone that a Congress government had begun it in 1974.
And five years hence, by a quirk of political circumstances befalling a scientist, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, the DRDO chief during the 1998 tests, went on to become the country’s president.
South Asia’s geopolitical scenario began to alter from that day. Eleven days later, on May 28, 1998, Pakistan countered with its own tests at Chagai in Balochistan. The nuclear race in South Asia was out in the open.
Both India and Pakistan are nuclear weapons powers today having produced nuclear warheads – Pakistan reputedly more than India. And China, the bigger reason for India’s nuclear quest that began in 1974, with Pokhran-I under Indira Gandhi, has become many times more powerful today. It has helped North Korea and its “Iron brother” Pakistan.
But the fundamentals remain unchanged. India Strategic Editor in Chief Gulshan Rai Luthra recalls India’s raison d’etre: “I had an occasion to personally ask Mrs Indira Gandhi the reason for conducting the first test. She had defined two: a. China is aggressive and we must not allow it to hurt us, and b. If this is the requirement for getting the UN Security Council membership, so be it.”
Should there be Pokhran III and more? While others are ‘free’, India declared a unilateral moratorium in 1998 that it would no longer conduct such tests. But debate persists two decades hence whether India should conduct any more tests, and if it should, has it already missed the bus.
Dr Bharat Karnad, for one, believes what India has achieved is “sub-optimal” and should conduct more tests, come what may, he told NDTV’s Pallava Bagla. Dr K. Santhanam, coordinator of the 1998 tests also holds similar views. But India seems determined to keep its word given to the world.
Dr S. Christopher, the current DRDO chief, interviewed on NDTV, sticks to the “no more tests” decision since they are not needed. But he maintains that should a situation arise from China, Pakistan or their combined threat, his organisation was battle-ready to carry out more tests.
In any case, the decision to make Buddha smile again would rest squarely with the political leadership. Late Indira Gandhi is not, and Vajpayee will not, remain footnotes in India’s history.
Although a “Vajpayee moment” should have been recalled better by the Modi Government, the political leadership is not exactly sitting idle. The name of Bharatiya Janata Party stalwart Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, a Physics professor to boot and the party’s original “bomb man”, figures in “special thanks” at the end of the credits in Bollywood film ‘Parmanu’ (atom) that John Abraham has produced and starred in.
Although Joshi is politically marginalized, he remains a respected leader. The film must have taken a year or more to make. Of course, a Pokhran-III is not going to be decided by a film.
Parmanu is fairly close to correct, notwithstanding the cinematic licence of introducing women characters, a spying network and songs inevitable for the film to sell.
It is not a potboiler. While Abraham plays a fictitious civil servant who is into research. Boman Irani has dark shades of the late Brajesh Mishra, Vajpayee’s principal private secretary and a confidante, who was the prime mover and later became India’s first National Security Advisor.
Those who were in the know then might detect hazy Kalam R. Chidambaram, Anil Kakodkar or Santhanam among the filmy characters christened as Pandavas in Mahabharata.
The moot point is that an actor-filmmaker, famous more for his charm and brawn, has been ‘inspired’ into making a fairly authentic movie that is well written and well performed.
Are Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government and party trying to send a political message out through ‘Parmanu’? May be — maybe not.
What the film conveys effectively is the strong sense of continuity in Indian leadership, no matter of which political hue, on a vital and highly sensitive issue.
We are reminded that after India bore the boycott and sanctions in the 1970s and 1980s, it was still quietly preparing to conduct more tests in the 1990s.
Although he is not directly mentioned, late premier PV Narasimha Rao did his best to do Pokhran II, till the Americans found out and put unbearable pressures. Defeated in the 1996 elections, Rao then passed on the plan to Vajpayee who carried it out.
Although Pakistan is an adversary, one must admire the resolve the political leadership has shown. Its ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has now sought to derive political mileage – a well-deserved one – from his country’s nuclear quest.
Although a pet project of the all-powerful army, meant to ‘contain’ an adversarial India, Nawaz Sharif has credited democracy with turning Pakistan into an atomic power.
“We should give credit where it’s due: Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto initiated Pakistan’s atomic programme. Who was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto? An elected prime minister. And who conducted the first nuclear tests? Another elected prime minister [Nawaz himself],” he said at an event to commemorate Youm-i-Takbeer, the day Pakistan conducted May 28 its first nuclear tests in 1998.
Sharif recalled that Bill Clinton had called “me five times and offered five billion dollars” to abandon the atomic programme. He did not.
But he failed to mention a double-irony. Bhutto was hanged and Dr Abdus Salam, the pioneer who would be the equivalent of India’s Dr Homi Bhabha, the country’s first Nobel laureate, excommunicated for being an Ahmedi, died a broken man hated by his countrymen.
This means the fundamentals have not changed. Except that Lord Buddha would certainly smile if the atom was used, not so much to make weapons, but for generating power, for medicine and for industry.
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