An important anniversary in the history of India’s strategic development just passed us by. Almost exactly 40 years before Mission Shakti, the successful A-SAT missile test, India had taken an epochal decision: To weaponise its nuclear capability.

The story must be retold now as it underlines the incredible bipartisanship and maturity demonstrated by seven successive governments and prime ministers. Even as they fought each other bitterly, they took care to ring-fence the essential national interest.

If India ever decided to single out a date for marking some sort of an anniversary of its nuclear weaponisation, 18 March 1989 would be a pretty good choice, probably even more fitting than the two dates of May 1974 and 1998, when Pokhran I and II, respectively, were conducted.

Rajiv Gandhi was then in the last few months of his prime ministership. He had suffered enormous attrition from fighting both internal and external crises. But on national security and foreign policy, Rajiv had not lost focus in the least.

Some frantic searching of our nuclear basements and barsatis, whatever you call them, during the Exercise Brasstacks crisis (1986-87) had revealed that our deterrent was far from ready. The complacency that 1974 had created was dangerous.

Also, by early 1989, it became evident that Pakistan was either very close to a deliverable weapon or had one already. Americans were already talking of Pakistan being a mere “last turn of the screw” away from the bomb. Sure enough, 1989 was the last year the US administration gave Pakistan their annual certificate of nuclear virginity, even though they were desperate to save it from sanctions — the ‘good’ jihad in Afghanistan was galloping towards ‘victory’.

It was in this setting that the Indian Air Force (IAF) decided to hold a massive air power display at its firing ranges of Tilpat, on the south-eastern edge of Delhi. It seems Rajiv made up his mind in the course of that remarkable display by 129 aircraft, almost a third of the effective IAF order of battle then. He gestured to the then defence secretary, Naresh Chandra, to follow him into a tent, even shaking off a curious Rajesh Pilot.

It is nearly impossible to reconstruct an authentic account of that momentous hour. But from what I have been documenting from various participants, direct and indirect, in what was to become the most spectacular and successful secret operation — also the longest — in India’s history, Rajiv, even with his power fading, had decided that the time had come for India to give up the pretence of “peaceful nukes” and develop a full-fledged arsenal.

That he put Naresh Chandra in charge of it is a fact I have confirmed with several members of the nuclear “core” group, as also successive prime ministers, although most are still shy of sharing any more details of the remarkable operation that subsequently unfolded.

The core group mandated to develop the nuclear arsenal included V.S. Arunachalam, then the head of the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO), and renowned nuclear scientists P.K. Iyengar, R. Chidambaram, and Anil Kakodkar.

The expertise came from nuclear scientist K. ‘Santy’ Santhanam, missile-man APJ Abdul Kalam of the DRDO, and Muthuswamy Balachandran of the Terminal Ballistic Research Lab, located now in Chandigarh, and some others.

I am not sure if the number ever added up to a dozen, but this was a tough gang to handle. These were highly talented, motivated and, in some cases, individualistic men, as scientists often tend to be. Rajiv probably chose Chandra to lead this group because he knew it would need an experienced, trustworthy and discreet civil servant to network the system and cut a few corners where needed.

A decision was taken to keep the whole operation totally secret, and ‘out of the system’. There will, therefore, not be a scrap of paper on this found either in the records of the PMO or the Cabinet. A novel, if irregular, way of providing funds for the programme was found, which, to date, remains one of India’s very well-kept secrets, even though many who made it possible are still active within the establishment.

As and when the scientists needed money, Chandra merely took a note directly to the finance secretary and the minister of the day, who signed it without asking questions.

The money was to come out of allocations provided in the annual union budgets under a nondescript ‘science and technology’ header to the Planning Commission. Of course, the financial adviser at Yojana Bhavan, as well as the prying auditors of the Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG), had been “advised” not to get curious about where this money was going.

The other side of this phenomenal operation was the acquisition, often from global markets, of materials required for the weapons as well as the missile programmes in spite of the sanctions.

It is still too early in our history for us to describe this in greater detail. But contemporary historians might ask what the brilliant, if mercurial, scientist ‘Santy’ Santhanam was doing on a desk at the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) on a full-fledged tenure. Suffice it to say that you won’t have a scientist of his repute reading clips from Pakistani newspapers and writing analyses.

It is also important to mention one more vital fact. In the course of this entire operation, which lasted from 1989 to 1998, not one Indian scientist, diplomat, or spook was ever caught, or even reported, for any irregular nuclear trade.

These were years when Pakistani nuclear smugglers and thieves were leaving their fingerprints, footprints and calling cards all over the place. So it is only fair that I do not tell you any more details about this, because even journalists must accept the principle of keeping some facts time-barred.

Not only was no Indian ever caught, none even whispered or boasted about it subsequently. The late Naresh Chandra kept his own counsel despite being under a vicious attack by some who made the outrageous allegation that he was an American ‘mole’ in the ‘system’.

I had then, in 2006, written a series of three articles (The mole and the fox, Know what they did that summer, and How we built the bomb), including a version of this one.

Chandra called me to see him and gently remonstrated, “Arrey bhai, kaun bataata hai aap ko yeh sab. Jaane deejiye (Who tells you all this? Let it be)”. Some of this featured in my obituary (Keeper of India’s family silver) on his passing as well.

It was only in a Walk The Talk interview with me in 2015 that Dr Anil Kakodkar talked about travelling on these overseas missions incognito, with passports issued under assumed names. He also mentioned a hilarious mix-up, which could’ve blown the entire operation.

Travelling somewhere on one of these missions, Kakodkar was told he would be received by someone who identified the scientist as Mr Rao.

“So, this person, who was unknown to me, came to me and said, ‘Hello, Mr Rao’. And I said, I am not Rao, I am Kakodkar,” the scientist recalled with a laugh. However, that someone was part of the programme, Kakodkar said.

There are some other important points for this phase of broken politics. One, that this operation spanned the tenure of seven prime ministers between Rajiv and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. And not only did it remain intact, it acquired strength and momentum.

Not one word was ever leaked about it. Never. When H.D. Deve Gowda sent Naresh Chandra as ambassador to Washington, he decided that his own trusted Karnataka-cadre civil servant, Satish Chandran, would take over as the keeper of the family silver. And isn’t it remarkable that the family silver and the secrecy around it were both preserved through periods of political instability and short-tenure governments?

I can never forget a philosophical statement I.K. Gujral once made to me when he was Prime Minister. This was when India had decided to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention and, surprise of surprises, notified that it was destroying its chemical arsenal.

This, when not much earlier, India had signed an agreement with Pakistan solemnly implying it had no such arsenal. Gujral took some of us senior editors into confidence and shared with us the nuances of this decision. And then he said, “Isn’t it remarkable how our country has been able to keep its secrets?”

“You can understand great people like Nehru and the Gandhis doing so,” he went on, “but then so many ‘lallu panjus’, ordinary men like us, have been in these jobs lately, and yet nobody has found out what we did not want anybody finding out.”

That was the point of my 2006 series of articles. India’s march to Pokhran 1998 was long, complex and dangerous. It also involved hundreds of secret steps and actions. And even if one had been betrayed, the whole operation would have been compromised.

These operations range from this completely novel funding in a system littered with auditors, to repeated exercises with IAF Jaguars and then Mirage-2000s to test the bomb-devices and develop tactics.

From the nuclear core group to the pilots of these aircraft, scores of people shared this confidence. Nobody betrayed it. Or, Buddha would not have smiled a second time in May 1998. By talking loosely of a ‘mole’ later, we do an incredible amount of injustice to the men who made this miracle of May 1998 possible.

Of course, the people who mattered — Vajpayee, former national security adviser Brajesh Mishra, even Manmohan Singh (who, as Rao’s finance minister, readily signed those funds and countless sheets of paper authorising these) — knew better. That they have chosen to stay above petty politics on this speaks about their sagacity and maturity, entirely in keeping with the character of this nine-year operation.

Today, when the A-SAT development, a logical next step in this continuous process of deterrence-building, is being made such a polarising issue, this slice of history needs to be highlighted again.

It is best to keep at least this most critical and sensitive aspect of the national strategic interest out of partisan politics. If wiser people hadn’t done it over the previous decades, India wouldn’t have reached here.