From Pokhran-II to nuclear deal, it’s been a long journey (Ten years after Pokhran-II)

May 10th, 2008 - 12:47 pm ICT by admin  

New Delhi, May 10 (IANS) “I have an announcement to make: today at 3.45 p.m. India conducted three underground nuclear tests at the Pokhran range,” said Atal Bihari Vajpayee in his undertone on the sizzling afternoon of May 11, 1998. The revelation literally dropped like a bomb on the journalists who had turned up in large number at the lawns of the Indian prime minister’s official residence at 7, Race Course Road.

It was a terse statement that announced India’s entry to the elite nuclear club. It sent shockwaves globally.

In India, the tests triggered mostly waves of jubilation, many seeing them as a passport to global clout.

Others saw the tests as the beginning of India’s isolation and collapse of the country’s economy in the face of retaliatory sanctions from major international players.

Patriotism suddenly became fashionable. India’s newly acquired nuclear weapons turned into prized vehicles of national pride.

“It was a sense of relief and freedom,” Jaswant Singh, the former external affairs minister and a senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader, told IANS. A close aide of Vajpayee, Singh recalled India’s dramatic emergence as a nuclear weapon state after at least two failed attempts. “I told myself, Thank God, we don’t have to live in the taikhana (basement) any more.”

The international community did not share this euphoria. It saw the tests as a brazen attempt by India, a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to gatecrash into the exclusive club jealously guarded by the five permanent nuclear weapon states of the UN Security Council.

The US was scandalized over India’s brazen defiance. The BJP-led NDA had assured Washington many times that it had no intention of testing a nuclear device.

“Nobody expected the Vajpayee government to test within days of coming to power in 1998,” said K. Subrahmanyam, a strategic expert who has advised successive governments.

The decision to go nuclear was a secret closely guarded by Vajpayee, home minister L.K. Advani, National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra and Jaswant Singh. Defence Minister George Fernandes was told about the government’s intentions only 48 hours before the tests.

To avoid a repeat of the aborted tests in 1995 under American pressure, Indian scientists entrusted with engineering the tests played an elaborate game of camouflage by donning battle fatigues to pretend to be soldiers at Pokhran.

But after soaking in this triumph, sobering realities dawned. Realists who knew the sanctions can’t be far away after the tests spoke about the tough challenge India was about to face.

The sanctions from the US and most allied countries followed. The response of the French and Russians was a little subdued. But they were unable to prevent the UN Security Council from demanding that India dismantle its nuclear and missile programmes and sign the NPT and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) without delay.

Australia and Britain had their high commissioners recalled for “consultation”. Japan, the only country to have been attacked by an atomic bomb, cancelled most of its aid to India.

Various technology denial regimes like the Missile Technology Control Regime were strengthened to starve India of cutting-edge dual-use technologies.

In a letter to then US president Bill Clinton, Vajpayee cited the Chinese threat as the chief trigger for India’s nuclear tests. China took the lead to isolate India.

The pressure mounted further when Pakistan conducted six nuclear tests, fuelling anxieties about South Asia turning into a nuclear flashpoint.

But India had made it clear that it was no longer ready to sit on the margins of the nuclear pecking order. The sanctions stayed in place, but the world’s leading powers were forced to change the terms of engagement with India.

The US started a process of rapprochement with the visit of President Bill Clinton to India in 2000.

Other influential countries also softened their attitude. Over the years, China, Japan and other countries have forged strategic partnerships with India.

Ten years after the 1998 tests, India, which was once sought to be isolated, is now hailed as a rising power. It has become one of the fastest growing economies and every country is keen to do business with India.

But the “nuclear apartheid” India challenged still remains. But many in the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group are keen to support the civil nuclear deal India wants to sign with the US.

If it comes through, it will lead to cooperation between India and the world on civil nuclear energy. It will also give India access to dual use and other sophisticated technologies that have been denied for nearly three decades.

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