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Shastri gets his way on nuclear policy

But before going to foreign powers for a security guarantee,the PM had to consolidate domestic support

Written by Inder Malhotra |
October 15, 2012 3:05:28 am

But before going to foreign powers for a security guarantee,the PM had to consolidate domestic support

WELL before the All India Congress Committee (AICC) could meet to pronounce its verdict on the raging controversy over whether or not to make the atom bomb to meet the Chinese nuclear threat,Lal Bahadur Shastri had made up his mind not to go for nuclear weapons. Instead,he had resolved to rely on international nuclear security guarantees,particularly from the United States and the Soviet Union. How this was to be achieved was far from clear; indeed,the whole idea seemed tentative and half-baked. In any case,before approaching foreign powers,the prime minister had to consolidate domestic support for his nuclear policy and,for this,endorsement by the AICC was a must.

Therefore,he and the Congress leadership were taken by surprise when the AICC met at Durgapur in West Bengal on November 7. A petition signed by more than 100 members demanded a closed-door session so that the petitioners could pursue their demand that India acquire “an independent nuclear deterrent to protect herself against any possible threat from China”. Strangely,even before the meeting had begun,Mehr Chand Khanna,a senior cabinet minister who had earlier served in the Nehru cabinet,articulated publicly that an Indian bomb should be made without further ado.

According to H.K. Dua,then a young reporter on the spot,he asked Shastri whether Khanna had taken his permission before making such a statement. The answer was “no”. When asked further why he hadn’t repudiated the erring minister,the PM had replied: “So many people are saying so many things; how can I correct them all?”

As almost all newspapers reported,the “majority of speakers at the AICC came out frankly and strongly in favour of making atom bombs”. Two young members who later rose to high positions in the government,K.C. Pant and Krishan Kant,were among them. There was also a suggestion for the appointment of a committee to assess the Chinese menace. Faced with this onslaught,Shastri decided to counterattack,which succeeded because other top party leaders,principally Morarji Desai and Krishna Menon — an odd couple,considering their intense mutual dislike — rallied to the PM’s support. They fully endorsed his moral and economic arguments for sticking to “the Mahatma’s teachings and Nehru’s legacy” and using atomic energy for peaceful purposes only. The high cost of nuclear weapons (Shastri questioned Homi Bhabha’s estimates and the AEC chairman later agreed that he had understated them) also helped the PM’s argument. Desai buttressed it by adding that the Rs 1,000 crore defence budget was already causing great hardship to the people. The huge additional cost of nuclear weapons would be “crushing”.

Eventually,the AICC passed the official resolution to the effect that India “would continue to utilise nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and that India would not enter into a nuclear arms race”. For his part,Shastri made a last-minute concession to his critics by declaring: “We cannot at present think in terms of making atomic bombs in India. We must try to eliminate the atomic bombs in the world”. (Emphasis added). The press called this outcome Shastri’s “triumph”,the Hindustan Times going so far as to hail it as “nothing short of a miracle”. This,however,was not the end of the journey. There were other big hurdles to cross.

Twelve days later Parliament met,ostensibly to discuss foreign policy. But,as everybody knew,the Chinese bomb was the real subject on the agenda. The parliamentary debate was even stormier than that at the AICC. Nath Pai,an eloquent general secretary of the briefly reunited two major socialist groups,set the tone. “Instead of making a dispassionate and calm assessment of the Chinese possession of this dangerous,deadly weapon,” he said,“we have been indulging once again in sentimental platitudes,confusing the whole issue and dragging (into the debate) Mahatma Gandhi,Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and,for good measure,Lord Buddha and Samrat Ashoka also.”

Most of the speeches that followed were even more critical of the government policy,but Shastri got some support,mainly from Minoo Masani,leader of the Swatantra Party,the highly conservative big business party,now defunct. Paradoxically,tacit support for the PM came also from the other side of the fence: the two communist parties that had split recently but were also reluctant to see the country go nuclear,especially the CPM,generally considered pro-China,as against the pro-Moscow CPI.

However,the comfort that Shastri drew from this turned out to be short-lived. For,on the second and last day of the debate,the Jana Sangh (forerunner of today’s BJP) introduced a resolution explicitly demanding production of atomic bombs. Since the division within the Congress was manifest and looked enduring,the government was very worried. In the end,however,it managed to defeat the resolution by voice vote,partly because many advocates of building nuclear weapons did not want to be counted on the side of the JS because they considered it then,as they consider the BJP now,“communal”.

Even this did not end the PM’s woes. A shrewd judge of his own party’s mood,he realised that he had to mobilise its support and felt this could be best done through the executive committee of the Congress Parliamentary Party that had become very conscious of its power after virtually forcing Nehru to sack Krishna Menon. Under Shastri,it had become even more assertive. He chose to mollify it by announcing that Bhabha had assured him that nuclear explosives could be used both “destructively as well as constructively”. For instance,an underground nuclear explosion could “drill a tunnel across a mountain or construct a canal for people’s welfare”. So he was authorising a Subterranean Nuclear Explosion Project (SNEP).

Unfortunately,soon afterwards erupted the virulent language crisis,followed by the Kutch conflict and the 1965 war with Pakistan. On January 11,1966,Shastri died at Tashkent. A fortnight later,Bhabha was killed in a plane crash near Mont Blanc that may not have been an accident. For a long while interest was diverted from SNEP and the Chinese bomb.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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