Shastri gets his way on nuclear policy

But before going to foreign powers for a security guarantee, the PM had to consolidate domestic support

WELL before the All India Congress Committee (AICC) could meet to pronounce its verdict on the raging controversy over whether or not to make the atom bomb to meet the Chinese nuclear threat, Lal Bahadur Shastri had made up his mind not to go for nuclear weapons. Instead, he had resolved to rely on international nuclear security guarantees, particularly from the United States and the Soviet Union. How this was to be achieved was far from clear; indeed, the whole idea seemed tentative and half-baked. In any case, before approaching foreign powers, the prime minister had to consolidate domestic support for his nuclear policy and, for this, endorsement by the AICC was a must.

Therefore, he and the Congress leadership were taken by surprise when the AICC met at Durgapur in West Bengal on November 7. A petition signed by more than 100 members demanded a closed-door session so that the petitioners could pursue their demand that India acquire "an independent nuclear deterrent to protect herself against any possible threat from China". Strangely, even before the meeting had begun, Mehr Chand Khanna, a senior cabinet minister who had earlier served in the Nehru cabinet, articulated publicly that an Indian bomb should be made without further ado.

According to H.K. Dua, then a young reporter on the spot, he asked Shastri whether Khanna had taken his permission before making such a statement. The answer was "no". When asked further why he hadn't repudiated the erring minister, the PM had replied: "So many people are saying so many things; how can I correct them all?"

As almost all newspapers reported, the "majority of speakers at the AICC came out frankly and strongly in favour of making atom bombs". Two young members who later rose to high positions in the government, K.C. Pant and Krishan Kant, were among them. There was also a suggestion for the appointment of a committee to assess the Chinese menace. Faced with this onslaught, Shastri decided to counterattack, which succeeded because other top party leaders, principally Morarji Desai and Krishna Menon — an odd couple, considering their intense mutual dislike — rallied to the PM's support. They fully endorsed his moral and economic arguments for sticking to "the Mahatma's teachings and Nehru's legacy" and using atomic energy for peaceful purposes only. The high cost of nuclear weapons (Shastri questioned Homi Bhabha's estimates and the AEC chairman later agreed that he had understated them) also helped the PM's argument. Desai buttressed it by adding that the Rs 1,000 crore defence budget was already causing great hardship to the people. The huge additional cost of nuclear weapons would be "crushing".

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