What exactly happened in 1995 when Narasimha Rao had made advanced preparations for testing at Pokhran? How did the Americans find out? Was there a mole?
Be it New Delhi or New York, I am no early riser. So it is never welcome when the phone rings at 6 am, as it did at Manhattan’s (then) Taj Group Lexington Hotel in the fall of 1997. But it was no misplaced wake-up call by a confused, part-time concierge. The voice at the other end was unmistakable: It was Naresh Chandra, then India’s ambassador to Washington, a posting that came after his handling all the key assignments possible in the civil service — cabinet, defence, home and water resources. Even his worst critics — and there is no dearth of them as you move up in babudom — would never accuse him of being rattled easily. But this morning, he was distraught. “Arrey bhai, yeh kya chhap diya aap ne?” he asked me in his characteristic Allahabad Hindustani. “Main to yehan safeer hoon, aur yeh keh rahey hain key main spy hoon.” (What have you published? I am the ambassador here and this gentleman says I am a spy.)
Then he went on to explain his predicament, just a hint of indignation in his voice. That very day he had to accompany Prime Minister I.K. Gujral to the meeting with President Bill Clinton, and how was he going to face both, his colleagues as well as the Americans, who would all have read that article? He was referring, of course, to an article written by Swadeshi Jagran Manch convener and my friend, S. Gurumurthy, in The New Indian Express. The ambassador said he was coming to see me in the Lexington lobby with a faxed copy of the article.
I tried explaining to him the complexities of the Indian Express group, that The New Indian Express was, in fact, another newspaper owned by another branch of the same family and with which we shared editorial and advertising, but not necessarily everything, and therefore, this particular article had not been published in The Indian Express (of which I was the editor then). But Chandra’s point simply was, that is all very well, but how do I handle the Pakistanis, the Americans and my own, and with hundreds of other top cats of the international diplomatic community that New York crawls with during the UN General Assembly fortnight?
I, obviously, was of no great help. He could not hold me “guilty” because we had not published that article, and were therefore in no position to make any “amends” to him as well. But the story continued to nag me, as it would anybody who made his living writing stories on defence and security, foreign affairs, wars and insurgencies, terrorism and politics. Having known Naresh Chandra for so long, I knew his remarkable credentials — as well as his connections. His brother Girish ‘Garry’ Saxena was a highly regarded head of RAW, and was also trusted with the governorship of Kashmir in the most difficult years. Far too many prime ministers had trusted him with far too many sensitive assignments for anybody to suspect he would ever betray his nation. In any case, as cabinet secretary, he would have known every secret worth keeping in this country — RAW, incidentally, is controlled by the cabinet secretariat. At the same time, you cannot dismiss Gurumurthy out of hand. He has access, intellect, and you can argue with his views on all things, from economics to foreign policy to whether the Shankaracharya is being victimised or not, but you cannot question his patriotism. So what the hell was this story all about? What was the truth?
I have almost obsessively searched for an answer to that question, raising it several times with three very experienced wise men in the prime minister’s chair in that decade — Gujral, Vajpayee and Narasimha Rao. But all I got were many enigmatic smiles with things like, “Why are you obsessed with this stuff? We have moved on.” But over the years, a body of evidence piled up, suggesting that in the topmost establishment at least, nobody seemed to believe the slur on Chandra. Rao had appointed him his key interlocutor for the negotiations with the US on nuclear and missile issues. Gujral and then the BJP continued to have him as ambassador to Washington in spite of the fact that the startling allegation — of espionage, no less — had been made by none else than Gurumurthy, who had so much clout with the top echelons of the RSS and BJP and open access to both the Vajpayee and Advani households. Also, Jaswant Singh and Brajesh Mishra both seemed to trust Chandra entirely. And to complete that intriguing circle, who did you see sitting on the dais with other distinguished speakers at Jaswant Singh’s book release in July 2006 but Naresh Chandra himself, telling delightful stories of how, as India’s ambassador to a bitter, betrayed Washington in May 1998, he got by by telling no lies, as diplomats proudly say they do for their country, but speaking as Jack Nicholson told Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give, “some version of the truth”.
Now, whatever your view on whether Jaswant Singh is right or wrong in not disclosing the identity of the “mole”, it is highly unlikely that if he ever suspected Naresh Chandra, he would have had him working the levers in Washington, or had him sharing the stage with him at his book release.
So what exactly happened in that winter of 1995, when Rao had made advanced preparations for testing at Pokhran and then The New York Times told us on 15 December that he was about to test? How did the Americans find out? Was there a mole? If so, who could it be?
Here is a confession I must make, even at the risk of losing the affections of some of my friends in the Congress, where the late Narasimha Rao is to be remembered only for hawala and other countless perfidies. I saw a lot of him after he had lost power. He had incredible intellect, memory, powers of analysis, and was both a great raconteur and a listener when relaxed and off-the-record. I sought time during several great national crises to seek his understanding and he was generous with it. “Of course,” he always said, “all I have is time. What do I have to do? I can’t do more politics. My party does not have a role for me.” And then he would add, in a rare touch of bitchiness — but deadpan — “Bhai, I am no Yashwant Sinha that if my party loses, or does not want me, I move on to somebody else with boria-bistar (bag and baggage).”
I went to see him during the Kargil crisis, immediately after Pokhran II, after the Lahore accord, during Operation Parakram and so on. And sure enough, each time I tried to bring on the question: What happened in December 1995 with his planned nuclear tests? Each time his response was the same. He would pat his belly, cross his arms to make the universal “the end” sign and then say: “This will go with me to my funeral pyre, I have taken an oath, after all.” I revisited this in my conversation with him on NDTV’s Walk the Talk in May 2004, and he repeated the same line, sitting under a banyan tree in his compound. Except he added two more interesting twists. One, he said, the decision to test or not to test was his own, and how would it matter if the Americans found out or not. Second, that the way these situations/ decisions evolve, and go one way or other, is what statecraft is all about. It was as close as the old fox ever came to admitting (it was also his first and only detailed interview after demitting office) that there had been a plan to test, and that he had pulled back at the last moment.
Why he did what he did, he said, would go with him in his funeral pyre, and you people can all write your books and try to figure it out. He, of course, acknowledged that Raj Chengappa (in Weapons for Peace) had come closest to the truth, but claimed that he did not quite get the whole truth.
But it was in the course of some of these conversations with him, and other key players of that period, from Vajpayee to Brajesh Mishra to J.N. Dixit and my old fellow travellers in the intelligence community (from my reporting years in troubled zones) that I began to get suspicious. Could it be, could it just be, that Rao had never meant to carry out the tests? That he was just play-acting, but making it so real everybody would believe it? And that includes the Americans who, if they did not find out through their satellites in clear December skies, would somehow be “informed”, through a mole or a double-agent of some sort?
There were many reasons why he would have done it. He and many other key players have confirmed to me — and it is a fact well-known in our nuclear-scientific-strategic complex — that at that point our scientists were not ready with all they needed to test, particularly a thermonuclear device. They wanted another year-and-a-half to two. Rao knew the urgency because of the then-impending CTBT — that is why the Chinese and the French were testing furiously. But he also knew that India would perhaps not get a third opportunity to test, and that Pokhran II would possibly be the last for a long time, if not for ever.
Was it then more prudent to test whatever India had now and face the economic, political and diplomatic consequences, or buy those two years or so, so that a more comprehensive range of tests could be carried out? As he had promised, that secret has gone with him to his funeral pyre, but anybody who knew the way his mind worked, his friends and victims alike, would find that a logical possibility. Promising to test in his election manifesto and going ahead immediately after getting elected was typical of Vajpayee’s style.
Rao’s would be more complicated, more devious. His friends and foes would both acknowledge his penchant for intrigue, as if Sir Walter Scott wrote his “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive” for him. You have to also remember the complications of 1995 when he faced an election he knew he was going to lose the next year, when India was still finding a new place for itself in the post-Cold War world, when India was under so much pressure over Kashmir. Could he have then decided to build a whole charade of testing, and then withdraw under American “pressure”, as Strobe Talbott claimed, first while speaking with me (NDTV’s Walk the Talk, 7 February 2004) and then in his book?
This would have been his way of lulling the Americans into complacency and buying his own scientists another couple of years. But, of course, the Americans had to “find out” what he was up to in Pokhran that winter. Could there have been a better way of doing so than through a trusted member of the inner circle, whom the other side could be tricked into believing was a “mole”?
That mystery will not be cracked soon because people in the Indian security establishment — fortunately — take their oath of secrecy rather seriously. But if I just look at the pile of circumstantial evidence — including the fact that no, I repeat no, member of that Rao inner core has ever been suspected, or distrusted by any successor regime — I think I know why Rao always had that mischievous, wicked grin each time I popped the question and he patted his belly, crossed his forearms and promised to take the secret to his chitaa. You’d say, how could you read what was arguably one of the most inscrutable faces ever in Indian politics? But I think in this case I could. And his face read: “So, didn’t I pull a fast one on the Americans?”
We have to thank Jaswant Singh for re-opening that most mysterious chapter in our recent history. That question is even more important because over the decades we have been rather good at keeping our nuclear secrets from the world, having carried out tests at Pokhran twice, almost a quarter century apart, without anybody’s spooks or satellites finding out. But, even after Jaswant Singh makes his “disclosure” to the prime minister, it will remain an eternal controversy, I promise you. Because if he knew more, he would have got the “mole” caught much earlier, rather than save it up for so long to fatten his royalty cheques.
Postscript: I can’t end this without talking about the other key figure speculated upon by some as being that “mole”, V.S. Arunachalam. Having known him quite well as a reporter on the defence beat in those years, I would not believe that charge in the least. He spoke of India’s defence needs with passion and an articulation rarely found in the scientific community. He was a metallurgist and so proud of having developed a new kind of composite armour for DRDO’s indigenous MBT Arjun. “The best armour anywhere, for love or money,” he once told me, lovingly caressing the glacis (front) of the prototype. But why did he then leave India so suddenly for Carnegie Mellon to work in his chosen field of metallurgy? Only he can answer that question, or other people in the know, wiser than me.
But I can indulge in some guesswork. It was in his time that DRDO, which he headed, acquired a larger-than-life profile, particularly because of his friendship with General Sundarji, his articulation and networking in the politico-security establishment. I must confess that once he and his scientists sold me a lemon too, promising the MBT Arjun, Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), phased-array radar Indra and much else all within a few years, resulting in an India Today cover story that I still feel embarrassed about. It was then, in those heady days of DRDO that an MoD bureaucrat had once whispered to me that given the tall claims he was making over it, LCA had better be re-named Last Chance for Arunachalam.
So now you might have an explanation for his abrupt and long “disappearance” from India. There is no way that LCA would be seen in squadron service for another decade, if ever at all.
This article was originally published on 29 July 2006.