Twenty years of Pokhran II: What the Kims and Trumps can learn from Vajpayee
Currently, the world is witnessing two dramas over nuclear ambition and containment unfolding in two zones of Asia - in the Far East where North Korea is exhibiting an intent for denuclearsation and opening up a frenzy of diplomatic engagements with the outside world and in West Asia where Iran had a nuclear deal which got torn up by the US as its president, Donald Trump, felt the deal made during Barack Obama's time had more flaws than not.
While the North Korean nuclear episode is still an uncertain one despite early hopes as we never know which way can Trump turn without a notice, the Iran nuclear episode has pushed the future of West Asia towards uncertainty for with the dumping of the 2015 deal, the road for tensions has only got clearer. Israel and Iran have already found themselves gradually involving in direct threat and attacks that could snowball into a huge conflict in no time.
20th anniversary of Pokhran II and nuclear India's magnificent peace record
And amid the chaos, India - a nuclear power - observed the 20th anniversary of Pokhran II, an event which had catapulted her status as a nuclear weapons power albeit against a lot of odds. But India not only survived the initial storm that came with its nuclear tests which saw arch-rivals Pakistan also doing the same within a few days, its status only continued to grow so much so that in another one decade, none but the United States was seen approving nuclear trade with India despite New Delhi not being a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Years later, there were even pushes from the West to see India get included in the Nuclear Suppliers Group but for China which opposed such an eventuality. But that is another story.
Coming back to Pokhran II (Pokhran I was the nuclear test of 1974 which was also called Operation Smiling Buddha), comparing it with the Iran and North Korea nuclear problems shows how a sound statesmanship and universal engagement can help a country overcome the obstacles and can lay the foundation for a long-time benefit.
If North Korea's Kim Jong-un or Iran Hassan Rouhani or for that matter US President Donald Trump haven't been able to conduct the nuclear diplomacy the way the world would have liked it (North Korea is doing it well but still it's a long way to go), they should take a leaf out of former Indian prime minister Atal Behari Bajpayee's book on how to do it successfully. Vajpayee neither had to make any secret visit to anywhere nor did he had to pledge a diplomatic surrender after the West looked at his government's nuclear tests with suspicion and imposed sanctions. The leader put up a brave yet responsible face to go ahead with his resolve to make India a nuclear weapon state especially when it was facing considerable danger in its neighbourhood.
Though a section criticises Vajpayee saying that it was he who had flagged off the nuclear race in South Asia as Pakistan too became a nuclear power, but there is also a counter school of thought which believes that Pakistan was going ahead of India with its nuclear plan and would have turned nuclear even if India did not do Pokhran II and if that had happened, New Delhi would have been under a great pressure to counter Islamabad and Beijing, which became the capital of a nuclear state in the 1960s.
Vajpayee went ahead with his nuclear resolve but never confronted the West
Vajpayee did not wait long to conduct the twin tests on May 11 and 13 after becoming the prime minister for the second time (his first stint in 1996 was just a 13-day affair) even though it risked universal condemnation. His determination to make India a nuclear weapon state even if that involved taking on the powerful players of international politics marked a permanent change in India's foreign policy. This is something his predecessors like Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and PV Narasimha Rao, the leader who opened India economically, couldn't do but Vajpayee went ahead. Vajpayee although was a BJP leader, yet he gave the final touches to a project which took effect under the Congress rule long back.
The West including the US was terribly upset with these tests and Washington even refused to hold any dialogue with New Delhi for nearly two months and the Glenn Amendment was implemented to impose sanctions.
But the Vajpayee government did not do a Kim or Rouhani to take a combative position vis-à-vis the West. Despite the pressure, the Indian leadership engaged with the West and eventually succeeded to convince the outer world that India's nuclear programme was not meant for adventurism but its own security. This India did despite not signing the NPT and it was possible because of the strong leadership skills exhibited by the then prime minister Vajpayee and other leaders of his government like former foreign minister Jaswant Singh who had prolonged meetings with the then US deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott. It was the effects of these diplomatic negotiations that served as the foundation of the nuclear deal of 2008.
Vajpayee himself played a key role in regaining the world's trust on India during his visit to the West in the later half of 2000. The then US president Bill Clinton had also visited India in March the same year and these engagements showed that India never lost control of the situation even if it looked hostile for a period of time (though it is difficult to say what would have happened if Trump was the US president then). And what also needs a mention is that Vajpayee also continued with his peace initiatives with Pakistan and China despite losing power after a year and coming back again in 1999. These sent the message that India was not planning to go berserk after gaining control of the nuclear weapon and still believed in making peace with its hostile neighbours in the conventional way.
Vajpayee'e legacy saw India's foreign policy undergoing a permanent change and it also paved the way for continuity in India's responsible nuclear policy which never put it in a collision course with the West. This is how Vajpayee's cold-headed statesmanship not only saved the day for India but also cemented its place as a nation that abided by responsibility despite having possession of the dangerous N-weapon.