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R Prasannan
R Prasannan


Roaring to go

Roaring to go Unsung hero: Narasimha Rao | Mustafa P.

Half Lion not only decodes the prime ministership of Narasimha Rao but also details India's survival through its worst times since independence

He may not have been India's greatest prime minister, but P.V. Narasimha Rao perhaps had the toughest tasks to handle as prime minister. He didn't have charisma, yet he became the first non-Gandhi-Nehru to rule full five years. He didn't have a majority; so he first devised the concept of rule by political consensus, and then quietly engineered a majority.

Punjab was burning when he came in, having been messed up by four of his predecessors including Indira Gandhi and Rajiv. Without as much of even a symbolic goodwill visit to the strife-torn state, Rao quietly went through a process of an election that witnessed the maximum bloodshed in any poll process in India, but which brought the state back on the rails of normalcy.

The global situation was the gloomiest since the end of World War II. The Soviet Union, which had held India's hand through thick and thin, and through war and sanctions, was collapsing. The Indian economy was at its worst state of penury since independence and was surviving by having mortgaged its gold reserves in the International Monetary Fund and the Bank of England. Pakistan, relieved of pressure on the Afghan front, was launching a crippling bout of separatist insurgency in Kashmir. Starved of spares, the Indian Air Force's Soviet-made fighters were falling off the skies, and the Indian Army was facing a situation where it didn't have even 15 days' ammunition. And at home, India was getting torn under caste politics, triggered off by the Mandal reservation and communal strife ignited by the Mandir movement.

Through a combination of astute politics, wise economics, crass pragmatism, shrewd diplomacy and a vision endowed with an eclectic world view and vast scholarship, Rao turned almost every adversity around. He 'bought up' a majority. He ushered in a set of economic reforms which were palatable neither to his own party nor to the opposition. He quietly befriended the west, made secret but bold deals with Israel without offending the Arab world, deployed Hindu opposition leaders like A.B. Vajpayee to speak for India and Indian Muslims in global forums. Perhaps, his masterstroke was to make a pact with China which 'froze' the border situation so that he could pull back a few brigades from the Chinese border and deploy them in Kashmir to fight the insurgents sent in by China's friend Pakistan.

Half Lion, which is a literal translation of the name Narasimha, is an objective, yet sympathetic account of not only the prime ministership of Rao but also the fives years of India's survival through its worst times since Independence. In the end, Rao could have crowned his other glories with a nuclear test. He had even got all the “saamagri tayyar”, but he had to leave it at the last minute to be completed by Vajpayee to do it. The chapter, Going Nuclear, tells the story of what could have been Rao's crowning glory.


Two days after Narasimha Rao's body was cremated in 2004, an emotional Atal Bihari Vajpayee paid his old friend a startling tribute. Rao was 'true father' of India's nuclear programme. Vajpayee said that, in May 1996, a few days after he had succeeded Rao as prime minister, 'Rao told me that the bomb was ready. I only exploded it.'

'Saamagri tayyar hai,' Rao had said. ('The ingredients are ready.') 'You can go ahead.'

The conventional narrative at the time was that prime minister Rao had wanted to test nuclear weapons in December 1995. The Americans had caught on, and Rao had dithered—as was his wont. Three years later, prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee fulfilled his party's campaign promise by ordering five nuclear tests below the shimmering sands of Rajasthan.

Vajpayee's revelations unsettled this narrative with new questions.

How closely was Rao involved in India's nuclear programme? What prompted his decision to test in December 1995? Why did he change his mind? Was it US pressure or something altogether more mysterious? Why did he pass on the baton to Vajpayee six months later?

The journalist Shekhar Gupta asked Rao these questions months before he died. The former prime minister patted his belly. 'Arrey, bhai, let some secrets go with me to my chita [funeral pyre].'....

Here, for the first time, are the secrets that Rao kept within his belly.

A few days after he became prime minister, Rao's appointment diary shows that he met with [DRDO chief V.S.] Arunachalam. 'The prime minister asked me some technical details,' Arunachalam remembers.

'I gave him a page of drawings, a sketch. He immediately read and understood, saying aloud, “So this is where the reaction takes place.”'

Arunachalam told Rao that the bomb was ready for testing. But India was in the midst of a financial crisis, and Rao counselled patience, saying, 'We should wait for the economy to improve.' Rao also understood that while India had the technology to detonate the bomb, its delivery systems were still in infancy. India was far from being a nuclear weapons state in 1991. Time and funds were in short supply.

Roaring to go Following in his footsteps: What Rao started, Vajpayee finished. Vajpayee at Pokhran after the nuclear tests | Reuters

A few days later, Rao spoke to his Cabinet secretary who, fortuna again, happened to be the chairman of the nuclear weapons committee.

[Defence secretary] Naresh Chandra approached Manmohan Singh. The finance minister had just devalued the rupee, and was busy preparing for the 24 July 1991 budget—the most important of his life. Manmohan had earlier served as the finance member of the Atomic Energy Commission and had a low opinion of the commission's financial discipline. Chandra asked Singh for additional funds under an innocuous budget category. 'What is it for?' Manmohan Singh asked.

'I don't think you want to know.'

As the nuclear programme progressed, Naresh Chandra would take 'black' flights out of Delhi to various 'black' nuclear sites so that he could give an independent report to Narasimha Rao on what the scientists were doing. Air traffic controllers were banned from recording these flight details. Chandra would be met on the tarmac by an unmarked car and driven directly to nuclear sites. He would scale down long shafts to inspect silos of weapons-grade plutonium. Technicians on site would joke that it was no easy task for a man of Chandra's girth to shimmy his way down a narrow hole.

In February 1993, the Prithvi-1 missile was successfully test launched. It was designed to carry a nuclear load to Islamabad and other Pakistani cities. Ronen Sen says, 'We had previously tested our nuclear [technology]. In 1993, we tested our ability to deliver. This is the day India became a nuclear power.'

The Prithvi-1 tests were followed by the successful Agni missile tests of February 1994. The Agni missile had a longer range than Prithvi-1. India was now confident that it could deliver nuclear weapons to both Pakistan as well as parts of China.

1994 was also the year India tested a delivery system of a different kind. In the mid-1980s, India had bought Mirage-2000 planes from France (as defence minister, Rao had overseen the final acquisition). In May 1994—twenty years after India's first nuclear test—Mirage plane was fitted with a bomb—'slightly longer than two adult arms stretched out'. This was a nuclear weapon, with the core and explosives charge inside, but without the plutonium. The plane flew to Balasore (India's missile test site) in Orissa and successfully dropped the bomb on a designated target. India could now launch nuclear weapons by missile as well as from air.

The DRDO prepared to deploy the Prithvi missile within units of the Indian Army. The United States protested. In order to buy time, Rao delayed deployment until after his visit to the United States in May 1994. Rao was keen to talk economics for the entirety of that trip. But President Bill Clinton brought up the nuclear programme and demanded that India sign the NPT. Rao reiterated the official line: India would not sign any agreement that allowed some countries to keep their weapons. A month later, Rao ordered Prithvi missiles to be deployed into the Indian Army. early November [1995], the DAE and the DRDO sent a note to the prime minister. It was for the 'prime minister's eyes only'—the highest possible security level. The note discussed the pros and cons of the resumption of nuclear tests. It provided a clear recommendation: that India conduct two to three tests in Pokhran between December 1995 and February 1996. It ended by listing a process by which Rao's explicit approval would be sought at four different points: T-30 (thirty days prior to testing), T-7, T-3, and finally T-1 (one day before testing). At T-7, the bomb would be placed in an L-shaped shaft at Pokhran. Seven days later, India would be a nuclear weapons state.

Soon after the prime minister's eyes scanned this note, he began a series of actions indicating where his mind was headed. His appointment diary indicates that Rao spoke in person to Abdul Kalam. He also spoke to Ronen Sen—then ambassador to Moscow and previously Rajiv Gandhi's confidant on nuclear issues.

The diplomat Prabhakar Menon was at the time a joint secretary in the PMO. Rao—via his principal secretary Amar Nath Varma—asked Menon and another diplomat, Sujata Mehta, to provide a top-secret assessment on what the international response to a test would be. Menon remembers, 'Within the PMO, the feeling was that if the decision was taken to test... we would be able to face the consequences, given our reserves.'

Rao even asked the finance ministry—through his Cabinet secretary—what the economic consequences would be. 'We did say the international reaction would be very negative,' the then finance secretary Montek Singh Ahluwalia remembers. 'The [Indian] economy which had recovered from the crisis was still not very strong.'

In end November, 'T-21', Naresh Chandra was ordered to fly to Delhi. Chandra had since retired from the bureaucracy and had been made governor of Gujarat. But such was his importance to the nuclear programme that he continued as its chairman. An encrypted red phone had been installed in his mansion in Gandhinagar so that Abdul Kalam or Narasimha Rao could reach him immediately.

On 30 November 1995, Abdul Kalam wrote to the prime minister—again for his eyes only—criticizing the international non-proliferation regime, particularly the CTBT. He suggested to Rao that India test nuclear weapons while the CTBT was being negotiated and while China and France were still testing. India could then declare itself a nuclear weapons state and sign the CTBT in that capacity.

Around 12 December, Naresh Chandra rushed to Delhi. Rao had given his consent at T-7 and the bomb was being lowered into the L-shaped hole by a division of the army that did not exist on paper. The division had been trained to constantly dig around the area so that when this day arrived, satellites would not pick up anything different. Even so, one member of the secret committee wonders (and this person insists on calling it mere speculation): was the digging around the L-shaped hole a little more than necessary?

The nuclear tests should have been conducted on 19 December. It is not known when Rao stopped it—at T-3 or T-1. But here the matter rested until a few days after the Clinton phone call.

On 25 December 1995, a secret letter was delivered to Rao asking him to delay testing for four weeks, to keep the US at bay. It went on to suggest that by early February 1996, India should conduct two to three nuclear tests. The note ended by quoting K. Subrahmanyam: 'India's voice on nuclear disarmament is not heeded because it is like an elderly spinster espousing the virtues of chastity.'

Narasimha Rao ordered the bomb to be removed from the L-shaped shaft. Yet—contrary to the public narrative—he was far from done.

On 14 January 1996, Abdul Kalam wrote to Rao urging him to boycott the ongoing CTBT negotiations and test nuclear weapons as soon as possible. The note was prepared in consultation with other members of the secret nuclear committee. At 11 a.m. on 19 January 1996, Rao's appointment diary shows that he met with his principal secretary, as well as his foreign, atomic energy and defence secretaries to 'consider our stand on CTBT'. A month later, Rao asked the finance ministry to prepare yet another analysis of the economic effects of a nuclear test.

In late March, Rao received a second call from Bill Clinton. The US President once again urged Rao to desist from testing. It is not known what exactly Clinton said. But the very fact of the call is more evidence that Rao was actively considering testing nuclear weapons in March 1996.

National elections were scheduled for May 1996, and Rao spent the next two months campaigning. On 8 May at 9 p.m., Abdul Kalam was asked to immediately meet with the prime minister. Rao told him, 'Kalam, be ready with the Department of Atomic Energy and your team for the N-test and I am going to Tirupati. You wait for my authorisation to go ahead with the test. DRDO-DAE teams must be ready for action.'

Two days later, the election results were announced. Kalam recalls that Rao ordered him not to test, since 'the election result was quite different from what he anticipated'.

Roaring to go

The BJP's Atal Bihari Vajpayee took over as prime minister on 16 May 1996. Narasimha Rao, Abdul Kalam and R. Chidambaram went to meet the new prime minister 'so that', in Kalam's telling, 'the smooth takeover of such a very important programme can take place'. Vajpayee's revelations of 2004 make clear what was discussed. Immediately afterwards, Vajpayee ordered nuclear tests, but rescinded that order when it was clear that his government would not last. In 1998, back as prime minister for the second time, Vajpayee was able to finally 'go ahead' and explode.

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Books India.

Half Lion: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Transformed India
By Vinay Sitapati
Published by Penguin Books India
Price Rs 699; pages 392

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