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Test of a prime minister

Last week, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was conferred the Bharat Ratna. Here, his former media advisor, Ashok Tandon, recalls the story of one of the Vajpayee regime’s biggest challenges — and achievements

Written by Ashok Tandon |
Updated: March 31, 2015 5:24:20 am
express column, column, editorial, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Bharat Ratna, Pranab Mukherjee, Bharat Ratna Atal Bihari Vajpayee, BJP, I K Gujral, Morarji Desai, P.V. Narasimha Rao, Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

Atal Bihari Vajpayee is the seventh prime minister to have been awarded the Bharat Ratna. Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Morarji Desai and Gulzarilal Nanda are the other PMs to have been honoured with the country’s highest civilian award. While Rajiv Gandhi and Desai were honoured when P.V. Narasimha Rao was PM, Nanda, who was twice interim PM, was given the award during the tenure of I.K. Gujral.

Rao’s decision to honour Desai, who headed the Janata administration from 1977 to 1979 — India’s first non-Congress government — was in defiance of the Congress’s party line. Perhaps, he wanted to set a precedent that all PMs be honoured with the Bharat Ratna. His protege, Manmohan Singh, it is said, wanted to continue the practice and had proposed that at least two of his predecessors — Rao and Vajpayee — be given the award. He, it appears, could not press the case since there was no support for the move within the Congress.

Rao, who accorded Padma Vibhushan to Vajpayee, had always enjoyed a special relationship with the veteran BJP leader.

During his premiership, Rao had deputed Vajpayee as leader of the Indian delegation to the special session of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, where a Pakistan-sponsored resolution to censure India on its human rights record in Jammu and Kashmir was successfully thwarted. Rao’s gesture had not gone down well within his own party. Salman Khurshid, the then MoS External Affairs, it was said, was upset working under Vajpayee in Geneva. Vajpayee succeeded Rao in 1996, when the BJP emerged as the single-largest party in the general election. His minority government survived only 13 days. Vajpayee had personally approached all non-Congress parties and regional satraps for support, but they all refused. Political considerations may have influenced their decision, but there are also conspiracy theories about the then isolation of the BJP.

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It is believed that Rao had an inkling that the US would lobby to deny the premiership to Vajpayee in the event of a hung Lok Sabha. Washington’s apathy towards Vajpayee was clearly reflected in some declassified emails sent to Washington by the US embassy in New Delhi. One such mail was based on the notes prepared by the US embassy from a conversation between Vajpayee and the then US ambassador to India, Frank Wisner, that took place prior to the 1996 election. In his report, Wisner had disfavoured Vajpayee as the next Indian premier because the “body language” of the BJP’s prospective PM indicated that he “would favour a (nuclear) test”.

When the 1996 general election threw up a hung Parliament, the then president, Shankar Dayal Sharma, appointed Vajpayee as PM and asked him to prove his majority on the floor of the House. Rao was certainly pleased with the president’s decision. But he knew what was in store for his friend Vajpayee. Without losing much time, he quietly passed on a chit to Vajpayee at the swearing-in-ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan, which said “now is the time to accomplish my unfinished task”. The task Rao had failed to accomplish during his tenure as PM was conducting the nuclear tests. However, Vajpayee was ousted from office before his government could prepare for the historic task.

Rao himself was a victim of Washington’s pressure tactics to prevent India from conducting nuclear tests. According to classified documents released by the National Security Archive (NSA) and the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project (NPIHP), Washington kept a close watch on the test site and made serious efforts to prevent a test. US intelligence agencies, according to classified documents from the US now available in the public domain, detected signs of India’s test preparations at Pokhran sometime towards the end of 1995. Ambassador Wisner then warned Rao’s office that the move would backfire on Delhi. He also met Rao’s principal secretary, A.N. Varma, with satellite photographs of the test site, according to the documents. Later, sometime in mid-December, the then US president, Bill Clinton, spoke to Rao over the phone, and got the PM’s assurance that India would act “responsibly”. These documents also reveal the US tried to use Japanese influence to stop India from going ahead with the tests. The United Front governments of H.D.


Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral that succeeded Vajpayee were battling political problems and could not have even thought of conducting nuclear tests.

After the 1998 mid-term election, Vajpayee returned to head a coalition government and the first thing he did was to order the nuclear tests. On May 11 and 13, 1998, Indian scientists accomplished the delicate task with precision, putting India in the elite global nuclear club. Most Western powers responded to India’s tests with severe economic sanctions. The NDA government fell within a year of the tests.

According to the classified documents, the tests took the US intelligence establishment by surprise. These documents concede that “satellite imagery could have provided early warning, but it was not analysed in time”. US intelligence also admitted in these documents that having learned from the 1995 experience, the Indians, under strict instructions from Vajpayee’s National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra, had concealed their test preparations, including at the Pokhran site, through a deception campaign.


The Vajpayee regime not only battled the tough economic sanctions but also withstood internal and external pressures. The victory in the Kargil conflict and the apt handling of the Indian Airlines hijacking earned him laurels across the globe. In the mid-term polls that had followed Kargil, the NDA won a decisive mandate and the Vajpayee government completed a full five-year term, a feat no non-Congress PM had achieved.

The writer was the media advisor to Atal Bihari Vajpayee when the latter was PM

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First published on: 31-03-2015 at 12:00:08 am
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