Atal Bihari Vajpayee would have ordered the nuclear tests in 1996 when he became Prime Minister the first time, but his government lasted only 13 days which delayed India's journey to becoming a nuclear weapon state, experts said on Thursday.
When he assumed Prime Ministership for the second time in March 1998, he immediately ordered the tests, following which India declared itself as a nuclear weapon state.
Under Atal Bihari Vajpayee's leadership, India successfully carried out three underground nuclear tests on May 11, 1998. Two more underground tests on May 13 completed the planned series of tests. Following the tests, India declared itself a nuclear weapon state.
The decision to conduct tests was taken by Atal Bihari Vajpayee's predecessor PV Narasimha Rao, but could not be executed as he lost the 1996 polls. In the polls, the BJP, under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, emerged as the single largest party.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee formed a minority government, which barely lasted a fortnight (from May 16, 1996 to June 1, 1996) as it failed the floor test.
"Had Vajpayee been confirmed as the Prime Minister in 1996, he would have ordered the tests at that point because the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty negotiations were moving forward," said former diplomat Rakesh Sood.
When Atal Bihari Vajpayee became the Prime Minister for the second time in March 1998, he immediately ordered the tests that were executed in less than two months after coming to power. The former Prime Minister, who passed away this evening, had also announced a moratorium on future testing at that time.
"He did it (ordered nuclear tests) as soon as he could when he returned to power (in 1998). He was convinced of its necessity and also that India could weather the storm. We are lucky he decided so, because it was already very late, and couldn't be delayed anymore," Rajeshwari Pillai Rajagoplan, distinguished fellow and in-charge of nuclear and space initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, said.
Following the tests, the west, led by the US, imposed sanctions against India.
"After the 1974 test, India did not declare itself a nuclear weapon state because the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had described the test as a peaceful nuclear explosion (PNE). The 1998 tests reflected both a technical imperative to test as well as a political decision to declare India as a responsible nuclear weapon state," Mr Sood, who was the special envoy of the then Prime Minister for disarmament and non-proliferation from 2013-14, said.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee faced immense international pressure during the time but ensured that scientists had a free hand.
"His was a very decisive and strong leadership. He would state whatever he wanted to say very firmly. He never allowed the pressure to percolate," Anil Kakodkar, former director of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), told PTI.
The centre was one of the key institutes under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) that shouldered the responsibility of carrying out the tests.
Mr Kakodkar later became the secretary of the DAE and chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. He was also one of the key persons involved in the negotiations for the Indo-US nuclear deal.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee is also the only non-Congress prime minister to have taken crucial decisions on defining the nuclear policy of the country.
While Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi were known for starting the atomic programme and displaying India's nuclear capabilities in 1974 tests respectively, the Indo-US nuclear deal was signed in the tenure of Atal Bihari Vajpayee's successor Manmohan Singh.
The deal is considered as a water-shed moment for India's nuclear energy programme.
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