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Why Deve Gowda decided not to test an atomic bomb

The former PM could have stayed in power if he’d gone ahead with Pokhran-2 but believed the economic and diplomatic fallout would be disastrous for India

Former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, who decided to delay the nuclear bomb tests till the economy stabilised, thought A.B. Vajpayee sanctioned Pokhran-2 in May 1998 as a convenient ploy to survive and secure his premiership. (Wikimedia Commons)

While on the subject of [the then principal scientific adviser to the defence minister A.P.J.] Abdul Kalam, there is one other issue associated with him that came up during [H.D. Deve] Gowda’s prime ministership, and which continues to have resonance to this day. It had to do with the testing of the atomic bomb, what came to be known later as the Pokhran-2 tests. In February 1997, the chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, Rajagopala Chidambaram, Abdul Kalam and [then principal secretary to the Prime Minister] Satish Chandran assembled in Gowda’s office for a meeting. It was not one of those routine briefing sessions but a classified exchange. 

The file seeking approval for nuclear tests was before Gowda, and he was not inclined to give it a go ahead. He had discreetly studied the economic implications there may be if the tests were approved and made notes in a notepad that was not a letterhead. Since it was a top-secret file, he could not engage in open consultation nor could he leave traces of his study.

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By then, the Gowda government had decided not to succumb to American pressure and sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Gowda was due to visit Moscow and earlier, in November 1996, he had broken protocol to receive the Chinese President Jiang Zemin at the airport for a historic visit. Besides, he had initiated measures to improve relationship with neighbouring countries. The Ganga water treaty with Bangladesh had been signed, the Mahakali treaty had been inked with the Bhutan king, and he was working the back channels with Pakistan. He was also concerned about the prevalent economic situation. But the scientists sitting across his desk had fixed a date for the tests. It was to happen on a Sunday. If he approved the tests, everything that Gowda was trying to achieve diplomatically, and for the economy, would be thrown out of gear. 

The scientists tried to convince him for an hour. But Gowda carefully illustrated his position without sounding as either disapproving or discouraging their decision. He said: ‘I will give you permission. I will give you more money, but please wait for a year. There is a lot of pressure on me with regard to the CTBT. I am also trying to improve relationships with all our neighbours, including Pakistan. The tests will throw everything we are doing out of gear. Plus, we need some more time to stabilize the economic situation. The master control facility of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is located in Hassan, my constituency, I have been there many times, and I am aware of the dedication with which all scientists work. I am not afraid of sanctions, but I need time.’ 

Gowda added: ‘Even as I spoke, I could see they were disappointed. They told me how this would demonstrate to the world that India was powerful. I repeated that I knew they were capable of blasting it the next day and that I was not against the tests. I had great pride too in the work they had done, but I had to get my priorities right, and they had to give me time for at least a year.’

Cover of Furrows in a Field, by Sugata Srinivasaraju, published by Penguin Random House India
Cover of Furrows in a Field, by Sugata Srinivasaraju, published by Penguin Random House India

Gowda, whose political problems with the Congress were mounting by then did not think of the tests as a convenient ploy to survive and secure his premiership, which is what he thought Vajpayee did when he sanctioned the tests eventually in May 1998. 

Gowda remembered: Vajpayee gave a go-ahead to the tests within three months of coming to power in 1998. He knew the political uncertainty that was enveloping him with Jayalalitha’s AIADMK being an unreliable coalition partner. He converted the tests into a nationalist slogan, which was unfortunate. When the tests happened, in an emotional outburst, Jagmohan, who was a minister in Vajpayee’s cabinet, called the previous prime ministers ‘impotent’. He was targeting Narasimha Rao, I.K. Gujral and me. Gujral wanted to counter that remark. But I thought he would not be effective because he had not seen the file or written on it. Also, he was too soft to do a political hit back. Therefore, I stood up and said, ‘none of us was impotent’. I asked Vajpayee to place the entire file in the House so that everybody could read what I had written and determine for themselves who was potent or impotent. I knew they could not table the file in the House. Vajpayee suddenly became alert. He signalled peace. Even as I was speaking, the news came that Pakistan had carried out similar nuclear tests. Everybody rushed to the Central Hall to watch television news. That day five crore Pakistanis and ninety crore Indians had been equated. India had lost its strategic advantage. Nothing that Vajpayee did worked later. The Agra summit also failed, and we had to bear the brunt of sanctions. The bomb did not stop Jayalalitha from withdrawing support to his government nine months later.’

Former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda in Rajya Sabha in November 2021. The son of a farmer, he entered politics in Karnataka in the 1950s and eventually served as the 12th Prime Minister from June 1996 to April 1997. 
Former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda in Rajya Sabha in November 2021. The son of a farmer, he entered politics in Karnataka in the 1950s and eventually served as the 12th Prime Minister from June 1996 to April 1997.  (ANI)

In a lengthy intervention in the Lok Sabha, a fortnight after the blasts, Gowda said: Senior Member Shri Jagmohan has mentioned that previous prime ministers had not shown courage to take a decision. I would like to just mention courage and conviction are not the issues alone when we are going to take a decision of this type… When we were heading a coalition with thirteen political parties, on an important issue like CTBT—the question was signing CTBT—the then minister of external affairs, Shri I.K. Gujral approached Shri Vajpayee, Shri Narasimha Rao, Shri Chandra Shekhar and a senior member Shri Somnath Chatterjee who is sitting here. All these four or five leaders were consulted before we took a decision. I am only mentioning how we tried to take the House or every political party into confidence when we decided not to sign the CTBT in 1996… [The Bill Clinton administration had also sent Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state, to persuade Gowda to sign the CTBT.63] Sir, what was the threat perception? The dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir and the border dispute between India and China, as you have quoted in your letter, have been there since the last fifty years. There is nothing new about it. The hon. home minister cited the reasons of militancy and insurgency. They are also not new… Sir, during 1997–98, our trade with China had gone up by $1.75 billion, if I am correct. Our trade with China had improved last year and our bilateral talks were going on. In such a situation, can you cite security threat as one of the major reasons for taking this courageous decision? Yesterday, the hon. minister tried to enlighten this House by saying that the government wanted to put an end to insurgency activities which are encouraged by our neighbouring country, Pakistan. If they are going to achieve that by showing the bomb today, we welcome that . . . How was this Pokharan-II test conducted? It was a hidden capability. I can only say that nobody has doubted India’s capability. Otherwise, where was the need for a superpower to force us to sign the CTBT? If they had considered that this country is not capable, they would not have put pressure on us… Mr Prime Minister, by showing your bomb, whether it is a big bomb or small bomb, you cannot solve the boundary problem in Kashmir or the problem in the North-eastern states.’

The issue rankled Gowda for a long time. He wanted to prove that it was nothing but a vanity bomb to improve the BJP’s political prospects. In the Motion of Confidence debate in April 1999, he tried to puncture Vajpayee’s argument, again: ‘Some people have said that there were impotent prime ministers and the potent prime minister had taken a decision to have the nuclear tests as if in thirty days, they had manufactured the bomb. We took the decision at that time not to allow them when we were running the government because of the economic situation. Now, I do not want to again dilate particularly on that issue. What has happened? Pakistan has also conducted two tests. They have a population of about six or seven crore people. We have a population of about 100 crore, but we have now come to an equal level in the eyes of the entire world. That is all what they (BJP and Vajpayee) have achieved.’

Excerpted from Furrows in a Field: The Unexplored Life of H.D. Deve Gowda by Sugata Srinivasaraju with permission from Penguin Random House India

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