In his first Interview since taking over as Prime Minister two months ago, Atal Bihari Vajpayee spoke to India Today's Executive Editor Prabhu Chawla. Excerpts:
Q : Why did you decide to explode the nuclear device now? How would you justify it?
A : We conducted the series of nuclear tests in keeping with our commitment made to the people of India during the elections. It is part of the National Agenda for Governance. The decision to carry out these tests was guided by the paramount importance we attach to national security. I have been advocating the cause of India going nuclear for well over four decades. My party, the BJP and earlier the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, had been raising this demand consistently and forcefully for long. Now that we are in the Government, people expect us to translate our long-standing commitment into action. And we have showed them that we mean business.
Q : Why didn't you wait for the National Security Council to be set up so it could decide whether the threat perception demanded it or not?
A : The National Security Council has a comprehensive brief. Among other things, it will carry out India's first ever Strategic Defence Review. The conducting of nuclear tests provides necessary information for this important exercise. It is important to distinguish between the two measures.
Q : What was the compulsion to carry out the tests now?
A : Important measures that are guided by national security considerations don't follow immediate compulsions. Rather, they are guided by long-term imperatives based on a sound appraisal of regional and global security realities. It is important for us and the world to know that by conducting the latest tests, India has responded to a stark regional and global reality that has evolved over the past 50 years.
Q : What is this new reality which your Government has discovered now?
A : We live in a world where India is surrounded by nuclear weaponry. No responsible government can formulate a security policy for the country on abstract principles, disregarding ground realities. Nor can policy be based on anything but the supreme consideration of national interests. The world knows the truth about the progress - or, rather, the lack of it - made by the nuclear powers in the direction of nuclear disarmament. The world community should appreciate the fact that India, the second-most populous country on earth, waited for five decades before taking this step.
Q : Doesn't your Government's decision constitute a radical departure from the policies of the past five decades?
A : No. My Government's policy is consistent with the nuclear disarmament policy that successive governments have followed. Like all previous governments, we too believe that India's national security, as also global security, will be increased in a nuclear weapons-free world. Past governments have taken a number of initiatives in this regard in the United Nations. As an MP and leader of the Opposition, I had supported these initiatives. Since 1968, all governments in India have acknowledged the need for keeping India's nuclear option open in view of the regional security environment. And successive governments have also been concerned that the present non-proliferation regime was singularly ineffective in preventing proliferation in one region and exacerbating our security environment.
Q : Why didn't India make effective noises then?
A : These concerns were spelt out during the CTBT negotiations in 1994-96. My Government's action has to be seen therefore as a minimal response necessary for addressing the growing concerns. We would have preferred the collective route to address these concerns. However, initiatives taken by India and other like minded members were rejected by the nuclear weapon states and their allies. Our action was therefore measured and marked by restraint.
Q : What is the worst-case scenario that you had worked out? Do you think we can withstand the pressure?
A : It is absolutely unwarranted to think in terms of worst-case scenarios. I would like to assure the people of the world, especially in our part of the world, that there is no cause for worry at all, much less any alarm, on account of India's action. All that India has done is conduct five nuclear tests. You place this fact in the context of the hundreds of nuclear tests that have been carried that India's action does not in the least warrant consideration of worst-case scenarios.
Q : What is your reaction to the US insistence that we sign the CTBT?
A : We have made our stand on the CTBT very clear. We have indicated our readiness to discuss certain provisions of the treaty on a reciprocal basis. But, taken as a whole, the CTBT is discriminatory because it allows nuclear weapons states with advanced technology capabilities to continue their nuclear weapons programme. And so also is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). There is no question of India accepting any treaty that is discriminatory in character. No one should have any illusions on this score.
Q : Does it mean that we will go ahead and weaponise the nuclear devices that we exploded?
A : You would have noted that neither my own statement of May 11 nor the longer official text released later that day has characterised the nuclear tests as " peaceful nuclear tests". Our intentions were, are, and will always be peaceful. But we do not want to cover our action with a veil of needless ambiguity. India is now a nuclear weapons state. Ours will never be weapons of aggression.
Q : What does this explosion mean for our country?
A : Millions of Indians have viewed this occasion as the beginning of the rise of a strong self- confident India. I fully share this assessment and this dream. India has never considered military might as the ultimate measure of national strength. I would, therefore, say that the greatest meaning of the tests is that they have given India shakti, they have given India strength, they have given India self-confidence.
Q : Will there be more tests?
A : The planned series of tests have been completed.
Q : What is the estimate of the price India has to pay in facing the international community?
A : Every decisive action has its consequences. But if the action is inherently in the national interest-and I believe our decision to conduct the tests is in supreme national interest-then we have to face the consequences and overcome the challenge. There is simply no other alternative. No price is high enough when it comes to securing national interests. We must be ready to face any eventuality.
Q : Are you prepared to bear the political and economic consequences of your actions?
A : Yes, our action has entailed a price. But we should not worry about it. India has an immense reservoir of resources and inner strength. If we tap this reservoir, the benefit will be a hundred times more than any price that we may have to pay in the short term.
Q : But what about sanctions against India?
A : There is talk and threat of sanctions. Some have already been announced. My Government will present India's case before the international community-both bilaterally and in multilateral bodies. I am confident our argument will be appreciated by more and more people. Already, countries like Russia, England and France have shown a commendable sense of realism in their response.
Q : Other powerful nations have come down heavily.......
A : Frankly, the talk of sanctions does not stand the scrutiny of logic or fairness. Besides, it sounds hypocritical. Some of the countries which have talked of sanctions or have otherwise criticised our action, have done, but they have also built huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Many of them are enjoying the shade provided by somebody else's nuclear umbrella.
Q : But don't you agree that these sanctions will adversely affect our economic recovery?
A : Sanctions cannot and will not hurt us. India will not be cowed down by any such threats and punitive steps. India has the sanction of her own past glory and future vision to become strong-in every sense of the term.
Q : Wasn't this meant to divert attention from Internal political problems?
A : This view is not only cynical but is totally at variance with the way a vast majority of Indians, cutting across the political and social spectrum, have reacted to the event. India has never played politics with national security. An overwhelming majority of Indians, including those who did not vote for my party or its allies, have spontaneously supported India's step of conducting nuclear tests. Almost all the parties have supported it. There is an absolute national consensus on this issue.
Q : Will your party exploit this for political mileage?
A : Indian democracy's greatest strength is that we have always put the nation above politics. It happened during Indira Gandhi's time, when India first conducted the nuclear test in 1974. My own party, then the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, and other opposition parties were at the time engaged in a major political campaign against Indira Gandhi. But that fact didn't in the least prevent us from supporting the government on the issue of the nuclear test.
Q : Would you say that with the latest test, India's nuclear establishment has come of age?
A : Yes, you could say that. Our nuclear scientists and engineers have done a splendid job and, naturally, the entire nation has risen to salute their professional excellence, discipline and patriotism. They have had the benefit of having been led in the past by great men like Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai. Also, we should not forget that a visionary like Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru understood the importance of nuclear science and gave full personal support to the founding of a world-class nuclear establishment. All the prime ministers who followed him have continued to support India's indigenous research and development in the nuclear field. What we are doing today is to build the superstructure on that solid foundation.