Last changed 30 March 2001
1989 marked a turning point in the strategic situation in South Asia because it was in this year that Pakistan, and in response India, began creating real nuclear arsenals by stockpiling complete, ready-to-assemble weapons.
Throughout the 80s, due to its strategic importance the U.S. had been loathe to pressure on its nuclear weapons program. To avoid invoking sanctions against Pakistan the Republicans in Congress had passed the Pressler Amendment which stated that as long as the administration could certify that Paksitan had not acquired nuclear weapons no sanctions would be invoked. To avoid triggering the Pressler amendment a series of "red lines" had been drawn for various milestones, such as producing weapon grade uranium, converting it to metal, and fabricating a core. But as Pakistan passed them one by one the Pressler Amendment, passed to avoid sanctions, became an inevitable trigger for them instead. The last certification was made in 1989, with great difficulty. Bhutto thus faced having to deal with the imposition of sanctions for a program she had done nothing to advance and did not control. Bhutto's knowledge of the Pakistani program was in fact wholly dependent on briefings given her by U.S. officials in February and June 1989 [Burrows and Windrem 1994; pp. 79-81].
This maturation of the Pakistani weapons program finally persuaded India to take the step of manufacturing an arsenal of weapons in a decision was made by Rajiv Gandhi on 18 March 1989 [Chengappa 2000; p. 332]. The program to finally build a nuclear arsenal was directed secretly by Defence Secretary Naresh Chandra, who cleared each of the acquisition steps personally with Gandhi. The weapons were assembled at TBRL and ARDE. According to Subrahmanyam by 1990 India had stockpiled at least two dozen unassembled weapons.
November 1989 saw a change in India's government, with Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress (I) Party being replaced by V.P. Singh and a coalition led by Singh's Janata Dal party. An important member of the coalition government was the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People's Party), or BJP which had won 86 seats in the Lok Sabha, second in the coalition only to Janata Dal's 144 seats.
The BJP had been growing as a political force in India since its founding in April 1980. It was the successor to the Jana Sangh, a party that based its appeal on Hindu nationalism and had distinguished itself by its consistent support of an openly nuclear-armed India. In its first electoral content the BJP had won a mere 2 seats in the Lok Sabha in the 1984 election. The leader of the BJP was Atal Behari Vajpayee, who had been a rising star in the Jana Sangh and served as foreign minister in the Janata government of 1978-79. The BJP had gained considerable prominence as a result of a rising strain if Hindu nationalist and religious activism which the BJP abetted. In particular an organization aligned with the BJP, known as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), had created a cause celebre in arguing that a disused sixteenth century mosque in Ayodhya was the very birthplace of the god-king Ram, and had been built with the ruins of the Ram Temple that had existed at the site. The religious militancy that the Ram Temple campaign inspired was the wave that washed the BJP into a prominent position in the government.
Despite the large bloc of seats that the BJP contributed to V.P. Singh's government, it received no ministerial positions, and had little opportunity to press its pro-nuclear position.
A new crisis involving India and Pakistan developed in the spring of 1990 over Muslim-majority Kashmir. The seeds of this crisis had been sown in April 1987 when Rajiv Gandhi's Congress (I) Party had contrived with the aid of the local Kashmir National Conference to steal the state election. Intimidation, harassment, and ballot tampering were widespread (and widely reported) but the Congress-National Conference Alliance emerged with slightly less than 50% of the vote, yet obtained 80% of the seats. Widespread protest followed over the next few years, much of it violent, which was met with harsh repression. An armed insurgency developed, and after Gandhi's defeat in November 1989 it escalated further. In January 1990 the new government sent 150,000 troops to restore order and established military rule. At this even the government's Kashmiri allies defected to the opposition. Pakistan had established training bases for Kashmiri insurgents months before, but now the Pakistani support for the insurrection went into high gear, and Pakistan's government began high profile protests of the situation. The rhetoric on both sides escalate rapidly during March and April. On 13 March PM Bhutto traveled to Pakistani controlled Kashmir and promised a "thousand year war"; Indian PM Singh responded on 10 April calling on India to be "psychologically prepared for war with Pakistan".
Both civilian governments appeared to be too weak to be able to back out of the confrontation, and on the Pakistani side events were actually being controlled by the military. The Kashmiri training camps were run by the Pakistani secret intelligence organization, the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate), and General Aslam Beg and his close ally Pres. Ghulam Ishaq Khan gave Bhutto little room to maneuver. Rajiv Gandhi used the crisis to needle Singh, stating archly that he knew "what was in the pipeline, and what the capabilities are" in an obvious veiled reference to the nuclear weapons then being manufactured, but were not yet operational.
Then in late spring U.S. intelligence intercepted messages indicating that the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), the custodian of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, had assembled at least one nuclear weapon [Perkovich 1999, p. 308]. There was additional evidence of suspicious activity detected, such as convoys traveling from nuclear storage sites, and F-16 aircraft on runway alert suggesting they were already armed [Burrows and Windrem 1994; pp. 83-85]. This prompted the George Bush administration to send a high-level team, headed by Deputy National Security Adviser Robert Gates, to meet with leaders of both governments. In Pakistan the team met with Gen. Beg and President Khan on 20 May (PM Bhutto was out of the country at the time); and with PM Singh, Foreign Minister Gujral, and Principal Secretary Deshmukh in India on 21 May. The American team found the two sides concerned about the prospects of war breaking out, but neither seemed much concerned about the prospects of a nuclear war. The American team revealed to the Pakistanis that they were aware of Pakistan's nuclear preparations, preparations that apparently came as a surprise to Pres. Khan, and was the subject of sharp exchanges. The Indians on the other hand knew nothing of Pakistan's preparations, and were not told about it by the Americans. In the end a list of confidence building measures proposed by the Americans served as the basis for a negotiated withdrawal from the crisis over the next six weeks.
As the crisis was winding down in June, Peter Galbraith, South Asia specialist for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met with Benazir Bhutto to brief her about her own nation's nuclear activities during the crisis. She was completely surprised by the revelations. The U.S. had by this time determined that Pakistan had converted 125 kg of weapon grade enriched uranium to metal and had fabricated the cores for seven weapons [Burrows and Windrem 1994; pp. 60-61]. In a follow-up meeting In July U.S. Ambassador Robert Oakley informed her that the U.S. was not going to be able to certify Pakistan again under the Pressler Amendment. This prompted Bhutto to try and obtain a briefing on the program from her own government. Three times over the next month she contacted Pres. Khan and requested that he convene the committee that ran the nuclear weapons program, but each time he demurred. Then on 6 August 1990, Pres. Ghulam Ishaq Khan announced Benazir Bhutto had been removed from office, a move Bhutto later described as a "nuclear coup" triggered by her efforts to obtain nuclear accountability.
Although much has been made of the 1990 crisis as the first example of nuclear deterrence in South Asian affairs, Perkovich argues persuasively that nuclear weapons played little or no role in the decisions made by the leadership of the two nations in generating, then resolving the crisis. The only real influence Pakistan's nuclear preparations had was to prompt the U.S. to get involved as mediator, a role that proved to be quite valuable in defusing the situation. The incident serves to underscore the independence that Pakistan's military exercised in controlling the nations nuclear capabilities, even in a period of supposed democratic rule. In October 1990, Pres. Bush informed Congress that he could no longer certify that Pakistan no longer had the bomb, thereby triggering the Pressler Amendment.
The decertification of Pakistan as a non-possessor of nuclear weapons was scarcely a revelation to India, indeed many there felt that it was long overdue. Nonetheless the formal change in U.S. position created new leverage for supporters of an openly nuclear armed India.
Pakistan's decision to manufacture nuclear weapons, and India's earlier decision to do the same (even if they were not fully assembled), prompted PM V.P. Singh to convene a secret study group in September 1990 to wrestle with the thorny issues of how to establish a National Command Authority, that is, how to formulate procedures so that the nation's nuclear arsenal would remain under effective control and leadership in the event of a surprise "decapitation attack" - a nuclear strike that kills the entire central government. This group was composed of scientific adviser to the ministry of defense V.S. Arunachalam, who proposed and organized the group, Rajagopala Chidambaram of the Indian AEC, Rajiv Gandhi's adviser Arun Singh, Gen. (retired) K. Sundarji, K. Subrahmanyam, and some others. The study group was not able to report its findings before Singh's government collapsed on 7 November amid widespread Hindu-Muslim violence fomented by the VHP and BJP, but was eventually able to hand its conclusions in to PM Narasimha Rao after his election in 1991. Despite this preliminary attempt to address some of the issues resulting from a nuclearized South Asia, no effort had been made yet to formulate an actual nuclear doctrine - policies and strategies defining how India would manage this new capability.
India went through considerable political instability in late 1990 through mid 1991. The Hindu nationalist agitation not only stirred up hostility between Muslims and Hindus, but also between Hindu castes and destabilized many political coalitions and arrangements. On 21 May 1991 Rajiv Gandhi was blown apart by a bomb while campaigning in Tamil Nadu (the suicide bomber who had approached him with the explosives strapped to her body perished with a dozen others). Narasimha Rao was hastily chosen to fill in for Rajiv Gandhi at the top of the ticket. When the delayed elections were held in June the Congress Party took 226 seats, and the BJP increased its share to 119. Even more significantly the BJP nearly doubled its electoral support, garnering 20% of the vote compared to 11% in 1989. Much to nearly everyone's surprise, PM Rao succeeded in completing a full five year term in office.
The BJP made political hay out of its demand that India deploy a nuclear arsenal, but in fact India was already taking that step. Its had committed itself to deploying a nuclear arsenal in 1986 with its first truly serious efforts at integrating nuclear weapons with delivery systems, but its first qualified, operationally ready nuclear weapons and delivery systems only became available in May 1994. India had adopted (temporarily) a policy of "nuclear opacity" similar to that practiced by Israel - obtaining deterrent effect through an obviously advanced nuclear capability; having a genuine, though secret, nuclear option that could be exercised if needed; while avoiding the political and economic costs by refusing to openly acknowledge that it had progressed to full weaponization.
This change in tone can by the first ever joint naval exercise conducted between the U.S. and India in May 1992. During this exercise (29 May 1992) India conducted the second test of the Agni (a failure), but the U.S. had been notified in advance of the test, and issued only a muted and mildly critical note about the test.
The Prithvi program continued to advance. On 18 August 1992 the ninth flight test of the Prithvi system was conducted. This was the second flight test of an extended 250 km version, and the first fully instrumented flight of this version. Rao slowed the program though, to avoid moving into deployment too soon, which risked triggering restrictions on technology imports.
The Hindu militancy that was pushing the BJP into the center of the national limelight reached its ugly apogee on 6 December 1992. A mob of Hindu militants mobilized by the VHP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and other BJP allies launched an assault on the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya and completely destroyed it. Communal riots erupted across India resulting in 3000 deaths.
|Drs. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and Rajagopala|
Chidambaram after the 1998 tests.
Relations with South Asia during the first two years of the Clinton administration (1993-1994) were marked by an effort to overcome the impasse that existed between India and Pakistan, and achieve some sort of agreement to restrain the nuclear competition between the two states. Efforts at avoiding nuclear weapon deployment had clearly failed, so the emphasis shifted to arms limitation in some form such as a cutoff in fissile material production, and a commitment to forgo nuclear tests. The reelection of Benazir Bhutto as Prime Minister of Pakistan in October seemingly provided a boost to this effort by restoring democratic government. Unfortunately the relations between India and Pakistan proved to be a zero-sum game -- a gain for one nation was perceived as a loss by the other, and what each nation desired to gain proved to be greater than what the others were prepared, or were politically able, to offer. In particular the more favorable position taken by the U.S. toward Pakistan after Bhutto's election was unacceptable to India and caused the Indians to dig in their heels; and Bhutto was too weak domestically to commit to the types of restrictions and inspections that were necessary in light of Pakistan's sense of inferiority with India. So in the end nothing came of considerable diplomatic effort.
On 19 February 1994 Agni took its third test flight at the Indian missile test range at Balasore, this time successfully with its range extended to 1200 km. The third flight marked the end of the first phase of Agni development program. The program went into a period of dormancy while the new Agni II began development, a longer range version that replaced the liquid fuel upper stage with a solid fuel version to make an all solid fuel missile
India became a nuclear weapon state in reality in May 1994, though most observers thought that this milestone had been passed years before. It was then that India completed its development of a fully combat ready system for delivering nuclear weapons by successfully conducting acceptance tests. The ARDE developed bomb case, and the TBRL developed implosion system were mated with a modified Mirage 2000 and successfully test dropped at Balasore. The bomb, complete except for its plutonium core, was fuzed for an airburst and released over the ocean. If it been required due to national crisis, no doubt the system could have been pushed into service at an earlier date as a stop gap, but in May the fully mature reliable and safe system entered service. India now had an arsenal of at least a couple of dozen operational nuclear bombs.
The years 1995-1996 proved to be watershed in the history of South Asia, and in nuclear proliferation efforts world-wide. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) came up for review and extension in 1995. Since its original drafting in 1968 the NPT had steadily gained adherents until by the mid-90s the vast majority of states in the world had signed it (by 2000 only 4 states out of 191 had not signed it - with India and Pakistan being half of the four). India had endorsed the NPT in principle, but had refrained from signing because it objected to the establishment of "legitimate" nuclear weapon states limited to the 5 nuclear armed nations then in existence. The NPT committed these nuclear states to good faith efforts at eliminating their arsenals but in the nearly 30 years since no effort in that direction could be discerned. India refused to sign the NPT unless the nuclear states committed themselves to a specific timetable to accomplish disarmament, an approach they unanimously refused to consider.
As the NPT extension date approached the nuclear states began pressing for making the NPT permanent so that it would never expire again, while the non-nuclear signatories to the treaty began insisting on a firmer commitment to arms limitation from the nuclear powers in return. In lieu of an actual disarmament commitment, the nuclear powers pushed two treaties that provided for restrictions on specific proliferation activities - the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to prohibit all nuclear tests, and a treaty to cut-off the production of fissile materials for weapons. Neither of these treaties would seriously inconvenience the states already possessing extensive stockpiles of tested weapons, but they would have serious effects on states with less well developed arsenals - like India.
This situation presented India with the worst of all worlds. They found themselves under intense pressure, particularly from the U.S., to assent to these treaties which would lock them in to a permanent status of a "second tier state", sharply constrain or wholly foreclose their nuclear capabilities developed at great expense and now at a stage of advanced development, while exacting a negligible price from the nuclear weapon states. To add further insult, two of the nuclear states - China and France - embarked on a new round of nuclear tests to add still more sophisticated designs to their arsenals before the CTBT shut down all testing. The dilemma was strongly reminiscent of the 1980s when developing international restrictions on ballistic missile technology induced India to push ahead with its missile program before the door could be shut on them. The new international push for limiting the spread of nuclear weapons (but not reducing those already held by the major powers) created pressure in India to breakout of its closet status, test its new weapons, and openly deploy them.
The linkage between U.S. pressure on the NPT and India's decision to move ahead aggressively on its strategic programs seems to have been quite direct. The full court press for the NPT began in January 1995, PM Rao responded by meeting with Chidambaram and authorized him to prepare to conduct a series of tests, including a hydrogen bomb test device and sub-kiloton devices to provide data for post-CTBT weapon simulations. Rao even specified that the scientists should be ready to conduct a test on 10 days notice, after the Prime Minister's decision to do so. Later, on 13 April 1995, Rao authorized 6 billion rupees for the development of the Agni II. Kalam was directed to intensify work on setting up a sophisticated command and control system for India's nuclear weapons, and to build additional weapon storage sites around the country (up to that point they nuclear components for weapons were all stored at BARC in Trombay).
It was after Rao's meeting with him that Chidambaram authorized Satinder Kumar Sikka at BARC to begin the development and preparation of a thermonuclear test device - a hydrogen bomb. BARC had developed some designs for thermonuclear weapons in the 80s, but these had languished without any serious effort to move forward with device fabrication although important work in the basic physics and in producing many of the essential materials like enriched lithium-6 and tritium provided a sound foundation. Sikka began developing a new design -- a sophisticated one intended for deployment on ballistic missiles (with a weight thus limited to 1000 kg) and using a boosted fission bomb primary.
The NPT extension passed overwhelmingly on 11 May, four days later on 15 May China conducted another nuclear test, and the next day PM Rao announced that India was considering deploying the Prithvi missile in the near future.
In August K. Santhanam, DRDO's chief technical adviser, was appointed mission director for the planned test series. That month U.S. intelligence satellites observed water being pumped out of the test shafts at Pokhran, which had become flooded in the intervening years. Construction also began on a new shallower test shaft.
In October 1995, 20 pre-production models of the initial Prithvi SS-150 (with a 150 km range) were secretly delivered to the Army to form the 333rd Missile Regiment based in Secunderabad. At this time the Prithvi was not yet equipped with a nuclear warhead.
Rao had never actually authorized tests though, simply preparations for them to keep his options open. Unlike in 1974, PM Rao conducted an extensive series of reviews to determine involving political, foreign policy, and economic advisers (but, in keeping with long-standing Indian practice, not the military) in addition to the nuclear scientists and engineers to determine whether tests should be conducted. Although the nuclear scientists, and members of the "strategic enclave" (like Sundarji and Subrahmanyam) strongly advocated tests, the net result of the reviews were negative, by the fall Rao had decided not to conduct tests. The principle reason for not testing were again economic, Rao recognized the principle source of China's international clout was its economic strength and that India needed to focus its energies on its economy to compete. Thus when the news that the U.S. had detected test preparations broke in the press in December, actual tests were no longer under consideration and test devices had never been transported to Pokhran.
The shift of Indian public opinion towards favoring tests is illustrated by an India Today survey of 2000 adults on 5 December 1995 showing that 62 percent of the respondents would approve if India exploded an atom bomb to develop its nuclear weapons capability.
Then on 15 December 1995 the New York Times disclosed that US satellites had detected test preparations underway at Pokhran. The newspaper quoted (unnamed) US government officials as saying spy satellites have recorded activity at the Pokhran test site in the Rajasthan desert in recent weeks. It said, however, that intelligence experts could not tell whether preparations were being made to explode a nuclear bomb or whether they involved some other experiments connected with India's nuclear weapons program. The Indian government called the New York Times report "highly speculative" but stopped short of an outright denial (see "Possible India nuclear test plan sends out shock waves", and Government calls report on nuclear testing 'speculative').
The disclosure created a storm of controversy booth inside and outside of India. Pres. Clinton called PM Rao soon after the disclosure to ask him not to test. Rao responded that India would not act "irresponsibly" but gave no other assurances. On 18 December the government declared that it would not succumb to external pressure, but the next day Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee denied that tests were planned.
But Rao's term in office was drawing to a close. Elections were held in April-May 1996, and the Congress Party was voted out of office. The balance of power in the Lok Sabha was indecisive - the BJP won the largest seats with 186. Congress and its allies won only 138 seats, and the National Front took 113 and remaining 95 split among smaller parties. A governing coalition required 273 seats and it was not clear what part could assemble a sufficiently large coalition. Since the BJP had gained the largest share of seats President Shankar Sharma asked the BJP led by Atal Behari Vajpayee to form a government on 15 May. Vajpayee was faced with the challenge of marshalling at least another 75 votes within 15 days to win a vote of confidence and remain in power.
Vajpayee had supported open nuclearization of India for 30 years, since the first Chinese nuclear test, as had the BJP for its entire existence, and as had its predecessor, the Jana Sangh before that. One of the planks in the campaign platform for the BJP had been "to exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons". So it should have been to no one's surprise that one of the first actions taken by Vajpayee upon taking office would be to set in motion the test operations that Rao had ordered to be made ready. That it appears to have actually been the very first issue acted upon by Vajpayee though is notable (see [Chengappa 2000; p. 31]).
According to Chengappa, Vajpayee's attempt to order nuclear tests was delayed until the day after his inauguration due to problems in contacting Abdul Kalam to receive the order. Three test devices were brought to Pokhran and emplaced in the test shafts:
The delay in testing brought about the hesitance of Rao and Vajpayee was actually a boon to the weapons scientists. The thermonuclear device was not ready yet, and the delay gave them time to prepare additional devices - two sub-kiloton experiments, and a boosted fission device using reactor-grade plutonium to enable India to draw upon its very large inventory of power reactor produced material if desired.
The nuclear establishment (BARC and the DRDO) also spent the rest of 1996 in mating the existing fission weapon to the Prithvi and Agni missile delivery systems and preparing the necessary command, control and security measures for the warhead (arming codes, security inter-locks, and an authentication and authorization system for use by the Prime Minister) [Chengappa 2000; p. 418]. On 1 April 1996, Anil Kakodkar became the new Director of BARC.
The BJP government was succeeded by a coalition of 13 parties supported by the Congress Party from the outside. A regional politician named H.D. Deve Gowda became Prime Minister. Soon after taking office Gowda was also faced with the decision to proceed with nuclear tests (the devices that had been placed in the test shafts had not been removed). The same economic considerations that had concerned Rao militated against it. While the matter was under consideration the U.S. detected additional activity around Pokhran and Warren Christopher questioned Foreign Minister Inder Kumar Gujral about it. Finally at the end of July or early August the devices were removed from the shafts and sent back to BARC.
The summer of 1996 was the "summer of the CTBT" for India's foreign policy. The negotiations on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty were drawing to a close, and although India had supported the treaty in principle for many years, as the debate on the final draft moved toward a conclusion India became increasingly critical of it. The treaty conference had been structured to require unanimous consent and on 14 August India announced that it opposed to treaty, blocking its adoption. A parliamentary maneuver subsequently side-stepped India's obstruction when the draft treaty was introduced directly into the UN General Assembly on 9 September 1996 by Australia and approved by voice vote the next day. It was adopted by a vote of 158 to 3, only India, Bhutan and Libya voted against it. Pakistan, which had said that it would sign the CTBT only if India did, abstained from voting. As one of the 44 nations possessing nuclear reactors, the CTBT cannot go into effect without India's signature however.
Many observers had concluded by this time that it had become inevitable that India would resume testing in the near future and inevitably declare itself a nuclear power. U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry later reported coming to this conclusion after visiting India in January 1995 and finding virtually no receptivity to avoiding nuclear development [Perkovich 1999; p. 355]. Curiously enough, two strong long-time advocates of a nuclear armed India - Raja Ramanna and K. Subrahmanyam - argued in the fall of 1996 that testing was not necessary for India, that India's existing fission weapons were an adequate deterrent without it.
During Gowda's term in office Foreign Minister Gujral conducted a very active and successful foreign policy under Gowda - improving Indian relations with China, Pakistan, the minor states bordering India, and last but not least the United States. In part Gujral's success was due to taking advantage of the possibilities created by the end of the Cold War, which had tended to isolate India from China, Pakistan, and the United States as a quasi-client of the USSR. Also India's growing strength commanded greater attention by all parties, and there was a synergistic effect - improving ties with one party tended to raise India's status with others.
But also important factors with regard to Pakistan's interest in improving ties with India were the fact that it was again (temporarily) under the civilian rule of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and Pakistan's both relative and absolute decline. Since the end of the Cold War, and the Afghanistan War, Pakistan had lost its strategic importance to both the U.S. and China and with it some or all of their financial and technical support. While India's economy had been growing robustly since 1992 and had a positive trade balance, Pakistan's economy had deteriorated seriously and was running massive deficits both in trade and in government spending. Pakistan had also failed to establish a stable social order - the military existed outside of civilian control (when civilian control even existed), the bulk of the Pakistani economy was under the control of a small number of wealthy families that exercised near feudal control over large areas of Pakistan, and radical Islamic fundamentalist sects formed yet another independent state-within-the-state. This last independent power arose as a result of the Afghanistan War, when the increasing Islamicized Pakistani military granted considerable autonomy and funding to Mujaheedin training camps in Paksitan. After the end of the war, these Islamic factions increasingly turned their attention to radicalizing Muslim ethnic groups inside China, quickly alienating Pakistan's erst-while patrons. China's disenchantment with Pakistan accordingly raised its interest in a rapprochement with India.
In the spring of 1997 PM Gowda authorized two operations that brought India closer to an open declaration of its nuclear status. The first was deploying Prithvi missiles (numbering less than a dozen), which had by this time gone into series production, at Jalandhar about 200 km from the Pakistani border. The second was to authorize the construction of two additional test shafts 50 m deep at Pokhran to accommodate the sub-kiloton test devices in March. It appears that Gowda may have decided to conduct nuclear tests at this point, a question that remains unresolved at this writing. Construction on the shafts began on 1 April and were completed on 11 April. Anil Kakodkar, BARC's director, traveled to the site on 15 April from to inspect the shafts and possibly to prepare for moving the devices. But two days later Gowda was forced by a vote of no confidence to resign.
In an article entitled "Nuclear India's Status" in the Indian Defence Review in 2000, Dr. Sanjay Badri-Maharaj, author of The Armageddon Factor said that during 1996-97 the Gowda government gave clearance so that India "actually began work on mating nuclear warheads to missiles." "This was confirmed to me in 1997 by a former artillery officer. This required modifications in safety locking systems and validating the mechanism's ability to withstand high-G (gravitation) forces," he said. Two tests for the mechanism to mount and trigger warheads were done on Prithvi SS-250 missiles before these were formally deployed in September 1997."
The deployment of the Prithvi was detected by U.S. intelligence in June, during Gujral's term in office, and brought about a diplomatic protest. Gujral downplayed its significance, pointing out that Pakistan had stored Chinese-made M-11 missiles of similar range at Sargoda, about 200 km from the Indo-Pak border. Gujral opposed nuclear tests and never approved them. Curiously enough though he did allow additional test preparations at Pokhran by authorizing a sixth shaft to be dug there in July.
August marked the fiftieth anniversary of India's independence. Widespread celebrations were held, but the occasion found the nation in an uncertain and reflective mood. Certainly much of the promise of the new nation had yet to be realized, and many were anxious for India to emerge as a major player on the world stage.
A most telling (and often quoted) exchange between PM Gujral and Pres. Clinton occurred on 22 September 1997 at the occasion of the U.N. General Assembly session in New York. Gujral later recounted telling Clinton that an old Indian saying holds that Indians have a third eye. "I told President Clinton that when my third eye looks at the door of the Security Council chamber it sees a little sign that says 'only those with economic power or nuclear weapons allowed.' I said to him, 'it is very difficult to achieve economic wealth'."
According to then Defense Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav in October 1997 the BARC scientists had completed assembly of the test devices ("[they] had even tightened the last screw"). Whether or not Yadav is correct about the devices' basic assembly, the plutonium cores were kept separate from the devices and were only inserted in the devices at Pokhran just before the tests.
Gujral decided to make a statement by awarding India's highest civilian award - the Bharat Ratna - to Abdul Kalam. The last time this award had been granted to a scientist was 1952 when it was posthumously awarded to Nobel laureate C.V. Raman. He made the proposal to President K.R. Narayanan on 3 November 1997, who readily agreed. This was also an award that had been rarely received by a Muslim like Kalam. The Bharat Ratna was actually awarded to Kalam on 1 March 1998
The instability in India's government continued. The Congress Party began trying to dominate the coalition, making preemptory demands on how the United Front coalition should be run. The Front agreed that Gujral should resign if Congress withdrew its support, which happened on 28 November. Attempts to form a new government continued until 4 December, when Pres. Narayanan dissolved the Lok Sabha and called for a breather from India's unstable coalitions. He asked Gujral to continue as caretaker Prime Minister until a new parliament was seated on 15 March of the next year..