Books | Between Pulls and Pressures

The real reason why Prime Minister Vajpayee conducted the 1998 nuclear tests. An extract

Between Pulls and PressuresNeerja Chowdhury

Vajpayee had a high-powered guest that night-RSS joint general secretary, K.S. Sudarshan. Sudarshan had phoned earlier in the evening, asking to see Vajpayee. Vajpayee invited him to stay for dinner. Ranjan Bhattacharya, Vajpayee’s foster son-in-law, who was in the hotel industry made sure the meal did not have any tomatoes in it—Sudarshan was known to be allergic to them.

After dinner, Vajpayee took his guest to another room so they could talk in private. Unlike other RSS leaders, Sudarshan was known for his blunt manner. Without beating about the bush, he told Vajpayee not to induct Jaswant Singh and Pramod Mahajan in the cabinet. They had after all been defeated in the Lok Sabha elections. This posed a dilemma for Vajpayee—for they were two people he relied on and enjoyed a comfort level with.

Jaswant Singh was in favour of the liberalization of the economy, which had been initiated by Narasimha Rao. The RSS knew that Vajpayee also wanted to go down that path. It wanted the new government to pursue the path of swadeshi (self-reliance). They found Jaswant Singh’s economic views problematic. After quitting the army, and before he joined the BJP, Jaswant Singh had been a member of the right-wing Swatantra Party, started by India’s first governor general C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji)—which believed in free enterprise and a market economy.

Keeping up the pressure, Sudarshan told Vajpayee he had come to see him with the blessings of the RSS chief Rajju Bhaiya. The RSS request made Vajpayee deeply unhappy. He, as the duly elected prime minister-designate of a billion Indians, was being asked to retract his word given to Jaswant Singh. He realized ‘they’ were clipping his wings even before he had taken off. But not wanting to start his premiership on a contentious note, he acceded to its request.

Shakti Sinha typed out another note around 2 a.m., which did not have Jaswant Singh’s name in it. It was rushed to Rashtrapati Bhavan in the early hours of 19 March 1998.

The next morning, 19 March, was the day of the swearing-in. But it was quiet at Vajpayee’s residence at 6, Raisina Road. Vajpayee sat down for breakfast at 7.30 a.m. He ate his papaya and toast unhurriedly. But he looked pensive—not upbeat, as he should have been. The swearing-in was scheduled for 9.30 a.m.

Driving to Rashtrapati Bhavan, a reflective Vajpayee asked Sinha, who was in the car with him, ‘Finance ka kya hoga?’

He then added, ‘What will happen if I retain the finance portfolio?

‘It should be fine,’ Shakti Sinha replied. ‘You can have a couple of good ministers of state in Finance.’

Vajpayee said nothing more for the rest of the journey. An eloquent speaker, he was not a very talkative man in person. At Rashtrapati Bhavan he greeted the long line of VIP guests, former prime ministers, and leaders of the Opposition who had gathered there for the ceremony. He was his usual smiling self. But by the time it came to the more formal part of the proceedings—when the new ministers took their oath of office and secrecy—he looked grave and troubled.

After the oath-taking was done, reporters crowded around the new prime minister. ‘Why was Jaswant Singh’s name omitted from the list of ministers?’ they wanted to know.

‘I will keep Finance myself,’ Vajpayee replied casually. The TV cameras captured his words. The journalists then rushed to where Advani stood. They asked Advani the same question. Vajpayee should not retain Finance himself, Advani replied.

Within four hours, Vajpayee had to eat his words—once again. In what was a humiliating climbdown, he had to appoint Yashwant Sinha as finance minister, before the day was out. Yashwant Sinha had emerged as a last-minute compromise choice. He had been finance minister in the Chandra Shekhar ministry in early 1991 and had joined the BJP in 1994. ‘Vajpayee was not keen on Yashwant Sinha,’ revealed Shakti Sinha to me. At the time, Yashwant Sinha was seen to be close to the ‘swadeshi’ lobby in the RSS which pushed for economic self-reliance. However, later on, Sinha would change his stance and push the pro-liberalization economic agenda of the Vajpayee government. The prime minister had already signalled to the captains of industry that he did not view them with distrust.

After these initial hiccups, in the first fifty days of the new NDA government, nothing seemed to go right for Vajpayee. By caving into pressure from the RSS, and the BJP, the new prime minister had signalled that he could be pushed around. His allies were quick to pick this up.

Jayalalithaa, Subramanian Swamy, Ram Jethmalani, Ramakrishna Hegde, Buta Singh, Mamta Banerjee—all of them made their demands and put the new prime minister on the defensive. Though she lent her support to Vajpayee, Jayalalithaa was not an easy partner to work with. Her party AIADMK, now an ally in the NDA, had cornered fifteen ministerial berths including prized ones like Revenue, Banking, Law, and Surface Transport. She even told Vajpayee who to have in his cabinet!

From day one Vajpayee had been nervous about what Jayalalithaa might do. When she was scheduled to come and meet him first on 9 March 1998, he had gone out of his way to win her over. He even found out what should be served to her when she came calling on him. Did she like tea? ‘No, please serve her coconut water,’ her AIADMK pointsman in Delhi, R. K. Kumar, told the PM’s aides.

Seeing her behaviour, other party chieftains also began to flex their muscles. When she attacked R.K. Hegde, now a minister in the Vajpayee government, for opposing her suggestion that Tamil be declared a national language, Hegde retaliated by calling Jayalalithaa and Subramanian Swamy ‘insects’. Swamy called Ram Jethmalani, another minister in the government ‘Jhootmalani’.

In less than a month the situation was spinning out of control. Some in the BJP started to suggest that it would be better for Vajpayee to go back to the people than submit to blackmail. By early April, people began to wonder how long the government would last.

Vajpayee was swamped by criticism from all sides—his own party, the RSS, the Congress, and the Left. Senior leaders like Harkishan Singh Surjeet and Jyoti Basu even dubbed his government ‘anti-national’. Criticism was not new to Vajpayee. Nor were feelings of despondency—this time at the way his long-awaited prime ministerial tenure was going. He had also felt dejected in 1984 when the BJP under his stewardship had got only 2 Lok Sabha seats. His career had hit low phases in the 1980s when he was sidelined and Advani promoted by the party and the RSS. But the despair he felt then was nothing like the dejection which hit him 1998 as his government lurched from crisis to crisis.

‘What has become of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s beatific smile?’ Mani Shankar Aiyar of the Congress asked sarcastically. In just a month, gone was the ‘bouncy, bubbly’ Vajpayee. He had been replaced by an unrecognizable figure—‘wan, fatigued, dispirited’.

‘At one point things became so bad that he had made himself incommunicado,’ Shakti Sinha was to recount later. In conflict situations, Vajpayee tended to go into a shell. He could be combative at the political level, but shunned conflict in interpersonal relations. Within weeks, the immense goodwill he had commanded began to erode. People began to ask: Does Vajpayee have what it takes to rule the country?

It seemed incredible that this should be happening to a leader with fifty years of political experience, who had no major charge levelled against him, whom the Opposition respected enough to call the ‘right man in the wrong party’, who was acceptable to the minorities despite being in the BJP, whose poetic heart, conciliatory image, and hypnotic oratorical skills had endeared him to millions.

Commentators urged him to do something ‘bold’. Bring a Lok Pal Bill in parliament as he had promised. Or initiate legislation to reserve one third of the seats in parliament and legislative assemblies for women. It had to be something weighty and radical. As the clamour for big and decisive action ratcheted up, Vajpayee knew what he had to do. He had almost done it in 1996 during his thirteen-day government. He had given the go-ahead to the scientists to go for a nuclear test—only to pull back at the last moment. Besides his domestic woes, Pakistan had also provided India the immediate provocation for a nuclear test by testing its missile Ghauri on 6 April 1998.

In principle he had already made up his mind to test. It was only a matter of when. He chose the timing of his move very carefully. And one of the reasons for his timing was his ‘shaky’ position within the NDA—and within his own party. ‘He wanted to acquire strength,’ said Bhuvnesh Chaturvedi, who knew Vajpayee well. ‘Secondly, the scientific establishment was ready.’ As the head of Parliament’s Standing Committee on External Affairs between 1996-98, Vajpayee had closely followed the global negotiations on the CTBT and become even more convinced about India’s need to test soon.

And so, while the timing of the tests in May 1998 had everything to do with India’s security imperatives, it was also designed to still the voices raised against Atal Bihari Vajpayee by his allies, his own party, and its ideological mentor, the RSS.

Vajpayee decided to go for the ‘Big Bang’ on 11 May 1998.

Neerja Chowdhury
Aleph Book Company, Pg 608, Rs 999



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