How Vajpayee & Kalam hoodwinked America and carried out Pokhran Nuclear Test in 1998

Ever since independence, the nationalists of India, who are overwhelmingly of the opinion that the nation was ruled by foreigners for more than 1000 years, have always placed national security at the top of their nationalist agenda. Hence, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh Party which was conceived as a nationalist party had ensured that the nuclear programme always got a mention in all its electorate promises.

In fact, such was the extent of importance the party had given to nuclear research, that the young dynamic nationalist leader Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee who represented Jana Sangh party in 1964, at the time when China conducted its first nuclear test, did not miss the opportunity to share his party’s views by stating that an answer to the atom bomb is the atom bomb and nothing else. That statement from Vajpayee on the floor of the parliament house not only received a thundering applause from his fellow parliamentarians, but also reverberated across the nation, and was highly appreciated by all Indians who were actually in a demoralized state after the humiliating defeat in 1962 Indo-China war under Nehru.
The nationalist party did not stop there with just statements alone. The party continued to press its demands to the ruling party to prioritize nuclear research, and in its own capacity also, came up with initiatives & strategies to counter the Chinese nuclear threat. In 1969, a comprehensive study on Indian nuclear strategy was prepared by none other than the young dynamic leader Dr Subramanian Swamy!!


Even today, Swamy’s comprehensive analysis is used as a reference for developing India-centric nuclear plans.

Finally, in 1974, when the Congress Govt headed by Indira Gandhi carried out nuclear test code-named “Smiling Buddha”, the Jana Sangh party despite being in opposition had wholeheartedly congratulated Indira Gandhi and the Indian scientists for placing India on nuclear map. i.e When it came to matters of national security, the nationalist party had always put politics at the backseat and put national interests above party & political interests. The following excerpt from LK Advani’s autobiography “My Country, My Life” sheds some light on the same.

Ever since the 1974 nuclear test at Pokhran, to avoid any more such tests in future, America had been spying every tiny detail in that geographical terrain using advanced real-time satellites which could capture images such high quality that the spies at CIA could even read license number on cars number plates using their satellites which were orbiting hundreds of kilometers above the land. It was due to such sophisticated surveillance & international pressure that subsequent Prime Ministers despite their interests in carrying out a full fledged nuclear test (because the 1974 test was more of a proof-of-concept), had to back off in the last minute, or would be arm-twisted by America (by threatening sanctions) into maintaining status quo. 

Having said that, PV Narasimha Rao (PVN) deserves some appreciation because he was the only Congress leader after Indira Gandhi who tried to revive nuclear research in a big way (almost after a decade of dormancy) and had even approved a nuclear test in 1995, but had to put it off because the CIA had detected suspicious movements & preparations at Pokhran and threatened PVN of consequences (including sanctions & impact on trade) if he went ahead with the nuclear tests.


Once again in early 1996, just before elections, PV Narasimha Rao tried to conduct nuclear tests (probably to use the expected positive public sentiment to electoral advantage), but even before he could blink, the CIA officials in the pretext of a courtesy visit, approached him with their latest satellite imagery as evidence and threatened him to cancel his plans.


When Vajpayee led BJP to victory in 1996 & took oath as PM, the former PM PV Narasimha Rao personally met Vajpayee and briefed him about his earlier nuclear test attempts which could not take off due to international pressure, and suggested Vajpayee to rework on the strategy & take it forward. This was music to the ears of Vajpayee who had always put forward his party’s views on upping the ante on nuclear programme, and now PVN was handing it to him on a platter. But by the time Vajpayee could take it forward, the project came to a standstill because his Govt fell in just 13 days. The subsequent Govts headed by Deve Gowda & IK Gujaral did not give much importance to nuclear programme and the project went into cold-storage.

It was only in 1998 when NDA came to power (for the second time), Vajpayee left no time in reviving the nuclear programme. Within a week of assuming power, Vajpayee called for a high level meeting with Dr Abdul Kalam and top officials to discuss the feasibility of a nuclear test. The meeting was so secretive that even the Defence Minister George Fernandes was kept in the dark. The only people in the meeting were Prime Minister Vajpayee, DRDO Chief Abdul Kalam, Atomic Energy Chief Chidambaram and BARC Chief Anil Kakodkar, along with Home Minister LK Advani and National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra. Nobody else knew of the plan.

Apart from these top officials, there were 58 Army-men who were involved in this project but were not involved in high level decisions. Their task was to just carry out orders precisely and they did it with utmost sincerity & dedication.

Now that the PM had shown courage & approved a full fledged nuclear test, the team headed by Abdul Kalam had 3 major challenges:

1) To avoid getting caught (detected) by the CIA surveillance satellites
2) To avoid leakage of info through double agents, phone tapping & eavesdropping
3) To avoid local spies deployed (by CIA & Pakistan) in and around Pokhran from raising suspicion

The 1st challenge (CIA surveillance satellites) was the biggest of all because it required lot of technical knowledge related to surveillance satellites. Moreover, it was due to this surveillance alone, all their earlier attempts were being immediately detected & suppressed by the CIA. Since the preparations involved digging, moving of sandbags, laying of cables etc, any such activity could be easily detected by the satellites.

However, there was some hope, and it needed some physics calculations. As per the 1975 agreement, the orbital path of all military & civilian satellites were registered with the United Nations. Based on this orbital path, Indian scientists calculated the precise timeframe & duration for which the American KH-11 real-time satellites would pass over the desert area at Pokhran and capture images which would be transmitted to CIA in almost real time. During those brief periods which would occur 2-3 times a day, preparations had to be suspended & all works had to be camouflaged. As soon as these brief periods elapsed, they would resume the operations again. Thus, according to the satellite images analyzed daily by the CIA at US, everything appeared normal.


The next challenge was of avoiding eavesdropping, and the solution was straight out of military books. Despite all the security measures, the scientists could still not be sure if they were being eavesdropped by spies, due to which they turned the whole thing into code-language, so that even if their converstaions were tapped or leaked, nobody would know what really they were talking about. For example, they used code-words like White house to refer to nuclear shafts, and Taj Mahal to refer the nuclear missile. So, when someone exclaimed that the White House had collapsed, no spy could decipher what they really meant. Similarly, they used codewords like Sierra, Canteen, prayer-hall and a host of code-words to refer to different objects, entities & processes.

Suppose a scientist asked “Has Charlie gone to the zoo?”, it meant “Has DRDO team gone to the Lab?”. At one point of time, the scientists were so much overwhelmed with code-words that one of them actually blurted out that it was easier to do physics calculations than to decode these code-words.
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The third & last challenge was to prevent the local spies from becoming suspicious. There were rumors that Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif & CIA had spies in almost every house in Pokhran. Any suspicious activity, especially related to preparations of nuclear tests could have caught their attention and the information would leak Pakistan & CIA immediately. One such direct giveaway would have been that of scientists in color dresses visiting the site. Even the most illiterate local person in Pokhran would have suspected something fishy if he had noticed someone in color dress at Pokhran. So, to overcome this, the scientists used to dress themselves up in Army uniforms whenever they visited the site, therefore camouflaging themselves into the Army battalions and everything would appear normal.
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Using these tactics, the scientists headed by Abdul Kalam, under the brave political leadership of Vajpayee faced all challenges, overcame all the obstacles, very cleverly hoodwinked CIA satellites, and prepared for the nuclear tests.

On 11th of May 1998, while the scientists were involved in the last minute preparations for nuclear tests at Pokhran, Prime Minister Vajpayee along with LK Advani and other top BJP leaders were huddled in a meeting room in Delhi and eagerly waiting for phone call on their specially installed telephone hotline . As soon as the phone rang at around 4 pm, Vajpayee picked it up and heard Abdul Kalam on the other end of the line (in Pokhran) exclaiming “Test successful!”. And the rest is hitory. The following excerpt from K Advani’s autobiography captures the climax followed by joy & celebration very well.

The mood of the country was ecstatic and was full of national pride. Although almost all the politicians were taken by surprise with these nuclear tests (many were shocked because nobody could have imagined that nuclear tests could be carried out under the sophisticated surveillance systems by CIA), most of them after recovering from their state of shock, eventually went on to praise Vajpayee for his boldness and scientists for their talent & relentless efforts. Former President & Congressman R Venkataraman had even gone on record to say that Vajpayee had the courage which Indira Gandhi had lacked, and heaped lavish praise on Vajpayee.
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As expected, America was visibly upset (more so due to their failure in detecting it despite having the world’s most sophisticated surveillance system) and sanctions followed immediately. However, the sanctions did not affect significantly, and they were revoked within 5 years. In the process, not only did Vajpayee strengthen national security & instill national pride among Indians, but also emerged as a bold global leader by sending out a strong message to the world that India could not be taken for granted anymore. 

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