A former Prime Minister speaks out

Print edition : June 20, 1998

FORMER Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda was among the first of the United Front leaders to have come out strongly against India's nuclear tests. In a letter to Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee on May 15, he said that the BJP-led Government's political decision - non-consensual and secretive - to conduct the tests was a setback to the process of improvement of India's relations with its neighbours. This improvement, he said in the letter, was an achievement of the U.F. Government. "All these positive achievements of the United Front Government had created not only harmonious political relations but had also reduced any threat to India's security," his letter stated. "Did that security situation change so suddenly, within six months of your governance? Your Government owes an answer to this question."

Deve Gowda said that when he was Prime Minister, he had been approached by the nuclear establishment for permission to conduct nuclear tests. "I declined to give clearance for demonstrating India's nuclear capability not because of the adverse reaction from the international community but because of my concern for improving the economic situation of the country," his letter said. The letter argued that in an "interdependent world no country can fight and win wars against others" and that while the "elite classes may celebrate the event, the poor masses go to "Beggars Dream" with their starving stomachs."

Speaking to Frontline in Bangalore, Deve Gowda elaborated on his objections to the nuclear tests, underlining the fact that his Government rejected the option to conduct nuclear tests after weighing its domestic, regional and overall economic implications. "Yes, scientists and engineers approached me when I was Prime Minister," he said. "I cannot reveal the discussions that took place as I am under an oath of secrecy. But I gave a final decision against it because of its consequences. It would adversely affect economic and infrastructural growth. It would lead to unemployment, poverty and fewer economic resources for social welfare programmes."

The BJP invented the argument of a security threat to the region to justify the tests. This was "for political gain", because the Government was under pressure to show the people some results, said Deve Gowda. When Prime Minister I.K. Gujral relinquished office on March 18, his Government did not perceive any threat to the country's security. Relations with China had dramatically improved. The border problem that existed since 1962 did not come in the way of normalising relations with China in other spheres. "After signing the Confidence Building Treaty with China when I was Prime Minister, bilateral trade was $1.75 billion (in 1996-97)," he said.

Deve Gowda spoke of the "tangible results" that his Government had achieved in promoting cordial relations with India's neighbours, citing as examples the treaty with Nepal with regard to the Mahakali project, the understanding reached on the Ganga water with Bangladesh, the ongoing diplomatic dialogue initiated with Pakistan. Given these gains, what was the necessity for the BJP-led Government to project the theory of a serious security threat to India? "Because in the 60 days in government, they failed to demonstrate cohesiveness amongst their allies. They had failed to take any major decision and their image was going down," argued the former Prime Minister. "Neither the border problem with China nor the Kashmir problem with Pakistan can be solved by the bomb." The bomb could only demonstrate deterrent capability. "The whole world knows that India has nuclear capability - otherwise where was the need for the nuclear powers to put pressure on us to sign the CTBT," he asked.The former Prime Minister dwelt at some length on the pressures his Government faced to sign the CTBT. According to him, this pressure itself was an acknowledgement of India's capabilities and the strength of its indigenously developed nuclear programme. India stood up to this pressure ("and this cost us a chance to become a member of the Security Council") from the nuclear superpowers who had built up formidable nuclear arsenals themselves and yet did not want India to test.

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