Brajesh Mishra was critical to the decision taken by the Vajpayee government to weaponise India's nuclear capability on May 11, 1998. Ten years on, in an exclusive interview with Amit Baruah of the Hindustan Times, Mishra, a former diplomat and the country's first National Security Adviser, talks about the tests and their implications.
Ten years after the Pokhran-II tests, do you think the decision has helped India?
Obviously, it has helped India from the point of view of security and playing a major role in world affairs and, I believe, in giving self-confidence to the people of India. You might remember it was also in 1998, when after major economic reforms, people began to talk about Indians enjoying prestige abroad, which was not there earlier.
I do recognise, of course, that the reforms were begun by the Narasimha Rao regime, but a boost was given by Pokhran-II and the economic policies of the NDA government.
Were the tests about India's status or defence preparedness?
It was about security. Status has followed it. It was not as if that we were going to undertake the Pokhran tests in order to improve our status. The idea was to improve our security scenario. One of the by-products was this (status).
When was the actual decision to test taken?
That was taken before the (NDA) government was formed. It was there in the (BJP) manifesto.
But many, including the Americans, didn't take the manifesto seriously…
The American intelligence system is not absolutely the best. If you remember, in 1996 when there was the 13-day government of Mr Vajpayee, there was an attempt to conduct the test. But time was too short. In 1997, one of the biggest things was CTBT, and BJP was totally opposed to it. We do believe that Mr (IK) Gujral heeded the voice of the opposition and didn't go for it (the CTBT). The decision was there for a long time.
Was there a precise day on which the top people concerned sat down and decided on a date for the tests?
I think it was the 7th or 8th of April (1998). This was after the Ghauri missile test conducted by Pakistan (on April 6)…I think the timing of our (nuclear) tests was triggered by the Ghauri missile test. This meeting at South Block was attended by Prime Minister, (APJ Abdul) Kalam (then DRDO chief), (R) Chidambaram (head of the Atomic Energy Commission) and myself.
Other than those who were present at the meeting, how many others knew the tests would take place on May 11?
I cannot speak with any confidence. PM Vajpayee never told me to whom he conveyed this. I presume he must have talked to the Defence Minister (George Fernandes), (LK) Advani, Jaswant Singh.
And was the decision of subterfuge - Kalam (known as Major-General Prithviraj) and Chidambaram donning military uniforms - taken at this meeting in South Block?
(Laughs). Kalam, Chidambaram and (K) Santhanam (chief technology adviser) took this decision themselves.
India went through a long period of isolation after the nuclear tests, there was also a lot of pressure on Delhi. Even the US and China issued a joint statement on our tests. How did the government cope?
Exactly one month after our tests, Jaswant Singh had his first encounter with Strobe Talbott. What was it about? Isolation or dialogue? Before the month of May was out, I was in Paris meeting President Chirac. Was that isolation?
The UN Security Council and the G8 passed resolutions…but at the same time the major countries they were trying to engage India in a dialogue.
So far as the isolation in the nuclear field is concerned, that was there after 1974 (the Pokhran-I test). India knew in 1968 when it refused to sign the NPT there would be consequences. But India wanted to keep its options open. And then exercise it.
What was added to it - the IMF and World Bank not giving this or that - was all gone within a year-and-a-half. In sum, I have never believed that India was isolated.
Do you think that the famous letter, which Vajpayeeji wrote to President Bill Clinton pointing at China as the justification for our tests, promptly released to the press by the Americans, was it a mistake?
The letter explained the reasons for why India tested. There were very cogent reasons. No one can deny even today that there was collaboration between China and Pakistan in the nuclear weapons' field. Madeleine Albright thought that she was being too clever by half by releasing this letter and spoiling our relations with China and then Clinton went off to China where they had the famous statement. Within one year, in June 1999, Jaswant Singh was in Beijing, talking to the Chinese.
I would not say that the Clinton administration moved away from their idea of capping and roll back (of India's nuclear programme), but when the Senate refused to ratify the CTBT in 1999, the American arguments made no sense. If you can't do it yourself, why are you asking us?
By testing in 1998, we ended the policy of nuclear ambiguity that India had maintained since 1974. Many believe that this was a mistake…
If were to become a nuclear weapons' state, which is what the BJP wanted, nuclear ambiguity had no meaning. Even during the second regime of Indira Gandhi, they tried to have tests. The shafts were dug, former President Venkatraman has said in his book that he went down the shafts. Narasimha Rao tried to have the tests.
Before that Rajiv Gandhi had already order nuclear weaponisation. Either in 1988 or in 1989.
So, you would say this was a policy of continuity rather than change between the Congress and the BJP?
Exactly. But we came out in the open. The tests were conducted on May 11, Prime Minister Vajpayee went and said we are now a nuclear weapons' state. And, we had these weapons. As I said, weaponisation was ordered by Rajiv Gandhi. But we had to test them.
The weapons could not have been made between April 8 and May 11. They were there, but they were not tested. And, the entire scientific community was saying that we have to test.
India's tests allowed Pakistan to test. What do you say to that?
Why don't we go back to AQ Khan's statement to Kuldip Nayar in 1987, when Khan said we have a nuclear weapon. Probably they didn't to test it because they were given a design by somebody.
Had we not tested, would be within striking distance of full civilian nuclear cooperation with the rest of the world?
If we had not tested, in order to get support from the major powers for our nuclear programme, we would have had to sign the NPT (Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty). If we had not tested, the conditions imposed upon us would have been quite different.
You remember, after the nuclear units at Koodanakulam, the Russians said we can't do any more. The French have been saying we can't do it. There came a stage when there was no possibility of India getting assistance - even getting uranium - without in one way or the other compromising on the NPT.
Now, the situation is different.