National Technology Day 2020: When India showed the world it meant business with Pokhran II Nuclear Tests

1998 was a remarkable year for Indian politics. Sonia Gandhi launched her campaign from Sriperumbudur, and later went on to become the Congress president, shunting aside Sitaram Kesri. An Atal-Bihari Vajpayee-led government came back to power with a coalition. It would go on to become the first non-Congress government to complete a full-term.

And on this day today, India showed the entire world it wouldn’t shy away from the N-word as it conducted 3 underground nuclear tests in Pokhran, including one thermonuclear device. India conducted two more tests on May 13, the US and Japan imposed economic sanctions and it became clear that there were new players at the global table.

As PM Modi noted: “On National Technology Day, our nation salutes all those who are leveraging technology to bring a positive difference in the lives of others. We remember the exceptional achievement of our scientists on this day in 1998. It was a landmark moment in India's history. Today, technology is helping many in the efforts to make the world free from COVID-19. I salute all those at the forefront of research and innovation on ways to defeat Coronavirus. May we keep harnessing technology in order to create a healthier and better planet.”

Pakistan followed suit, even though it’s believed they had capability since the 1980s, and Bill Clinton went on to call South Asia the ‘most dangerous place in the world’.

This Day That Year 

In Pokhran there was a noise like huge thunder, followed by cheers. In Delhi, PM Vajpayee, Home Minister LK Advani, Defence Minister George Fernandes, Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha and Principle Secretary Brijesh Mishra were huddled around a telephone.

That’s when Scientific Advisor to Vajpayee, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam sent a message: “Buddha has smiled again.”

It was a reference to an earlier call to Indira Gandhi: “Buddha has smiled.”  While it happened under Vajpayee’s tenure, the work for India’s nuclear program started years ago.

India has been trying to go nuclear since independence but the 1974 test was unsuccessful and let to sanctions.

In 1989, Rajiv Gandhi took a call to make India a nuclear state, setting in place a team that included Naresh Chandra (defence secretary), VS Arunachalam (head of DRDO), PK Iyengar, R Chidambaram and of course APJ Abdul Kalam.

It was a secret from 1989 to 1998. Despite seven different PMs, not a word of it leaked to the press. In ways, India’s hand was forced by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which was extended in 1995, making it seem like the only the N-5  (US, Russia, UK, France and China) could be allowed to modernise their N-arsenal.

In fact. PVN Rao is hailed as the ‘true father of India’s nuclear programme’.

Veteran journalist Shekhar Gupta noted: “By late 1995, Rao’s scientists told him that they needed six more months. They could test some weapons but not others…thermonuclear etc. So Rao began a charade of taking preliminary steps to test, without intending to test then.”

Even Vajpayee said: “Saamagri tayyar hai," Rao had said. ("The ingredients are ready.") "You can go ahead."

At that time, there was pressure on India to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would’ve prevented India form testing. The tests changed India’s perception around the globe as Strobe Talbott noted: “The week was no longer normal, India was no longer merely important.”

Global sanctions and Economics Woes 

There were sanctions from Canada (given the use of their uranium) and Japan.

US issued the strongest condemnation as did our nuclear-powered neighbour China.

However, the other N-5 countries, UK, France and Russia didn't criticise India publicly.

In fact, what followed next was also a diplomatic tour de force as India reached out to several powers. Then Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh and US Deputy Secretary Strobe Talbott began a conversation, which would result in a US-India Nuclear deal in 2008.

In Raja Mohan, director Carnegie India’s words, the tests ‘ended India’s global isolation, and provided the basis for reconciliation with the global nuclear order and redefined India and US relationship’

The Clinton administration enforced tough economic sanctions Yashwant Sinha, then Finance Minister, had noted that his challenge was that a bleeding foreign exchange – without international developmental funding from World Bank and others – would lead to haemorrhaging of a newly opened up economy.

With impending drying of our aid and investments, Sinha devised an elaborate solution. They asked NRIs and PIOs to raise money through Resurgent India Bonds, and the Indians abroad came through, raising $4.5 billion in 10 days.

Perhaps it’s important to remember the aforementioned diplomatic manoeuvring when Indians start to lament about international relations over the tweets of a few random Princesses.  

There was much hand-wringing from the liberal world order, angry op-eds from the Arundhati Roys of the world and it even spawned a terrible movie by John Abraham, but there was no denying – India had arrived at the global stage. There’d be no turning back.

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