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Indian scientists planned nuclear test in 1997. But PM Deve Gowda gave 3 reasons to say no

Lt Gen (retd) J.S. Dhillon has told Gowda’s biographer that Mehbooba Mufti’s father had sought the Army’s help to ensure her victory in the 1996 Jammu and Kashmir election.

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New Delhi: Indian scientists had “fixed a date” — a Sunday — to conduct nuclear tests in early 1997, but then Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda asked them to wait for “at least a year”.

In an interview published in his soon-to-be-released biography, Furrows in a Field, Gowda has cited three reasons for his refusal to give the go-ahead: US pressure to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), desire to improve relationship with Pakistan, and economic situation.

The nuclear tests — Pokhran-II — were finally conducted in May 1998, around seven weeks after Atal Bihari Vajpayee became the prime minister. That his predecessors I.K. Gujral and H.D. Deve Gowda had chosen to stall these tests is a matter of public knowledge, but it’s the first time Gowda has revealed what exactly transpired between him and the scientific establishment at the time.

In February 1997, Rajagopal Chidambaram, then scientific adviser to defence minister A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, and then chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, met Gowda in his office to seek his approval for the nuclear tests. “I will give you permission. I will give you more money, but please wait for a year,” Gowda told them, as he disclosed in the interview he gave to his biographer, Sugata Srinivasaraju.

The then PM explained to the scientists: “There is a lot of pressure on me with regard to the CTBT. I am also trying to improve relationships with all our neighbours, including Pakistan. The tests will throw everything we are doing out of gear. Plus, we need some more time to stabilise the economic situation…I am not afraid of sanctions but I need time.”

Even as Gowda spoke, he could see that the scientists were “disappointed”. “They told me how this would demonstrate to the world that India was powerful. I repeated that I knew they were capable of blasting it the next day and that I was not against the tests…but I had to get my priorities right and they had to give me time for at least a year,” he told his biographer.

According to Gowda, Vajpayee knew the political uncertainty that was enveloping him with Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK being an unreliable coalition partner. “He (Vajpayee) converted the tests into a nationalist slogan, which was unfortunate… That day (when Pakistan conducted nuclear tests), five crore Pakistanis and ninety crore Indians had been equated. India had lost its strategic advantage,” Gowda told Srinivasaraju.

Also Read: How Pokhran nuclear tests kicked off a year that changed India-Pakistan ties forever

Mehbooba Mufti’s father wanted Army to ensure her victory

When Mehbooba Mufti, the former Jammu & Kashmir chief minister, contested her first Assembly election from Bijbehara constituency as a Congress candidate in 1996, her father, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, sought the army’s help to ensure her victory, Lt Gen (retd) J.S. Dhillon has told Deve Gowda’s biographer. He was the Army’s XV Corps Commander in Kashmir when the elections were held.

“Once, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed came to see me in my Badami Bagh office. He was in the Congress those days. He said his daughter, Mehbooba, and his wife were both contesting from the Anantnag area and wished that they both won,” Lt Gen Dhillon said in an interview with the biographer.

“I said ‘Mufti sa’ab, I don’t know about winning but take it from me, voting will take place there. Militants may be in any number but voting will take place. Beyond that, if you think we will assist your daughter and wife to win, that won’t happen.’ He was a little taken aback,” said Lt Gen Dhillon.

Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and his daughter Mehbooba quit the Congress in 1999 to found the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party (JKPDP).

Speaking to ThePrint Tuesday, Lt Gen Dhillon confirmed that the former home minister had approached him to ensure his daughter’s victory in elections. He, however, said that this had no bearing on his relationship with Sayeed, who never broached this subject again. “But I must say I have immense respect for Kashmiri politicians, because of the way they function under so much threat.”

ThePrint has reached out to Mehbooba Mufti for her comment on Lt Gen Dhillon’s claim about her father seeking the army’s support. The copy will be updated after she responds.

Gowda’s reluctance to become PM

In the biography, Deve Gowda has given a detailed account of how strongly he pleaded against his candidature for prime ministership in 1996. Then CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet was working with then West Bengal CM Jyoti Basu to pick the United Front’s PM candidate, after the Left party had vetoed the latter’s candidature — which Basu described as a “historic blunder”.

The first choice of the coalition partners was ex-PM V.P. Singh. Gowda, M. Karunanidhi, Chandrababu Naidu and Murasoli Maran went to meet Singh at his 1, Rajaji Marg residence in Delhi. Singh came to see them in the lawn, greeted them and went into his residence. “We later learnt that he had left by the back entrance to some unknown place. After nearly two hours, his wife came out and told us…we should not wait and he wouldn’t agree to our proposal to become PM.”

It was after this that Basu’s candidature was floated. After the CPI(M) rejected it, Basu summoned Gowda in the presence of Lalu Yadav and Surjeet and said the then Karnataka CM should take over. Gowda, however, protested, saying that he had been the CM for less than two years. “My career will end abruptly. The Congress party will not let us run the government for long. I want to be like you (Jyoti Basu), sir. I want to rule Karnataka for many years…I also have no felicity in Hindi…You are our elder, I beg you.”

As Jyoti Basu persisted, Gowda “touched his feet” and “requested him to accept” his argument. The then West Bengal CM wouldn’t relent: “Mr Gowda, do I go out and tell the people of India that we have no secular alternative to (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee? Can we put out an advertisement in the newspaper for a secular prime minister?” Gowda finally gave in.

Also Read: Rao-Gowda-Gujral-Vajpayee PMO had ‘atom-bomb’ files on Pawar, Mulayam & others: ex-IAS officer

Vajpayee’s offer to save Gowda government

Quoting officials in the then PMO, the book said that Gowda had a “one-year phobia”. He knew the Congress would pull out sooner or later to bring down his government. His apprehension was proved right when Sitaram Kesri, then Congress president, went to Rashtrapati Bhawan in March 1997 to submit the letter of withdrawal of support, barely 10 months after the party had offered support to the Gowda government.

In his interviews with the biographer, the former prime minister has given a glimpse of the internecine war in the Congress then. Organisational elections were to take place and there were many in the Congress who aspired to replace Kesri. One day, senior Congress leader Rajesh Pilot called on Gowda. He spoke about a three-year-old murder case against Kesri and asked if it could be reopened. Pilot was referring to the 1993 murder of Surendra Tanwar, Kesri’s personal physician. Pilot even wrote a note to Gowda, who told the author he had destroyed the note after Pilot left. There was a petition filed in a Delhi court demanding a probe into Kesri’s role. All this led to Kesri’s questioning.

On 30 March 1997, Kesri went to the President with the letter of withdrawal. On 9 April, three days before Gowda was to move the motion of confidence, Kesri sent R.K. Dhawan to Gowda. Dhawan said Kesri was willing to take back the letter if he (Gowda) publicly apologised for not consulting him before taking major decisions and assured him that he would henceforth consult him. “I said I wouldn’t apologise but can publicly assure that I would consult him hereafter. But that was not acceptable to Kesri,” Gowda told the biographer.

After Gowda moved the motion, Jaswant Singh gave a chit to then Parliamentary Affairs Minister Srikant Kumar Jena for Gowda. It read: “We will save your government. Don’t resign. Accept our support.” It was from Vajpayee.

(Edited by Gitanjali Das)

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