An unsung hero of US-India nuclear deal

Chairman Indian Atomic Energy Commission, Anil Kakodkar (L), and Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh (R) applaud during a function dedicating atomic reactors 3 and 4 at the Tarapur Atomic Power Station near  Mumbai, 31 August 2007.

Biographies stand apart as literary genre for three reasons. One, they are a branch of history and yet are literary works in their own right. Two, biography is a craft rather than art where general rules of testing evidence apply. 

Three, importantly, reading a biography can be an intensely personal journey as it holds the potential to take one down the memory lane, and in the solitude of thoughts, an altogether cathartic experience accrues, when ennobling passions and forgotten feelings get triggered — simply put, the reader inevitably relates oneself to the story of the life that is progressively unfolding in the book. 

It is this third factor that I found most attractive about the recently published memoir of Anil Kakodkar, formerly chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of India and one of our most prominent scientists and civil servants — Fire and Fury. 

Kakodkar is an inspiring figure in many ways. Personally speaking, from what I have heard about him from Foreign Service colleagues, I ended up as an admirer of his.

Besides, I can almost entirely relate my own life’s trajectory to his — lower middle class social moorings; mother as the fulcrum of the universe; schooling in vernacular medium in obscure municipal schools; brilliant academic performance rooted in an unquenchable thirst for knowledge; career in the chosen profession solely on merits, soaring high like a lark through sheer hard work and diligence; idealism that refused to go away right till the end (and beyond) while serving the government; dogged determination in the policy realm to view anything and everything solely through the Indian prism; and, of course, the mulishness borne out of deep convictions, typical of most self-made people. 

Right at the outset of his narrative, Kakodkar introduces a powerful metaphor from mythology to characterise his life — Ekalavya from the Mahabharata. Should I say more? 

When Kakodkar was introduced to then US President George W Bush in the backdrop of the US-India nuclear deal of 2008, POTUS remarked, “So, you are that Kakodkar. Are you happy?” Bush was referring to the feedback he received from the American negotiators who had him on their crosshairs as the single biggest obstacle on their path to wrap up a nuclear deal with India on their terms. 

As a former diplomat, what I found utterly fascinating was Kakodkar’s version of the negotiations over the 2008 nuclear deal. It is an authentic narrative, or else, knowing former PM Manmohan Singh, he would never have written the foreword to the Fire and Fury. 

The officials whom the Indian media hailed in their cover stories at that time as national heroes for negotiating the nuclear deal turn out to be men made of straw. This is how Kakodkar narrates the strategy session taken by Manmohan Singh in his hotel suite in Washington, DC, on the eve of his crucial meeting with President Bush in the White House on 21 July 2005, which was attended by then EAM Natwar Singh, MOS Prithvi Raj Chavan, NSA MK Narayanan, FS Shyam Saran, Ambassador Ronen Sen, amongst others from PMO and MEA: 

“When my turn came (to comment on a draft joint statement regarding the nuclear deal), I had to bring out inherent risks. I explained that we couldn’t open up cooperation (with US) in certain areas of the nuclear programme… Such programmes had to be completely insulated… Our experience with Tarapur had to be kept in mind… As the formation … did not meet these expectations, I did not support the text and expressed the need for further changes… the proposed draft was not acceptable.” 

“The moment I said that, several seniors pounced on me. ‘Atomic energy is not the only concern; you have to think about the country.’ Finally, the PM said, ‘If Kakodkar says no, then we can’t go ahead.’ I remember Natwar Singh reprimanding me right in front of the PM. Ronen Sen… began talking like an expert in atomic energy and tried to negate my serious reservations. I was being singled out as the fall guy. All this was very painful.” 

But the incredible part is, the next morning before his meeting in the White House, Manmohan Singh called Kakodkar to his hotel room and in the presence of Natwar Singh, asked him to write down the formulation that would be acceptable. Kakodkar recounts, “I scribbled it on a paper napkin lying on the table. He (PM) took the paper, folded it, put it in his pocket and went for the meeting (with Bush.)”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (L) and US President George W. Bush, White House, Washington, 21 July 2005

Kakodkar added, “Things were going down to the wire. At lunch, MEA officials showed me the latest draft. The text was now acceptable and I said so.” 

“With the job done… I wanted to fly back directly to Mumbai. I went to see Manmohan Singh and take leave. Dr. Singh, visibly relieved, said, ‘Yesterday night I couldn’t sleep. I stayed awake, praying throughout. You (Kakodkar) saved the country’.” 

One could make out that the only two Foreign Service officers posted in Delhi at that point in time whom Kakodkar was comfortable with — and possibly trusted — were Sujata Mehta (on deputation with PMO) and Venkatesh Varma in MEA (presently ambassador to Moscow.) This of course doesn’t really surprise me, as I had the privilege of knowing these two outstanding colleagues. 

Kakodkar is, evidently, a very intelligent man with an IQ that would probably make MEA bureaucrats scramble for cover. He was a shrewd observer of mice and men, exceptionally skilled to discern the bureaucrat’s shenanigans and had full grasp of the frightening reality that the Americans wielded immense clout with the South Block bureaucrats. Some of his observations are indeed shocking: 

“Though I knew I had the backing of the PM, I was aware that the government was not a monolith… I had to put my foot down and that was the reason I went public with my stand. While ding so, I had kept my resignation letter in my pocket and was ready to put in the papers if the situation so demanded…”

“Within MEA itself, there was a divide on the issue. I had sympathisers and supporters in the MEA who would urge me to be careful and firm. They may not have understood the technical aspects fully but they did understand the dynamics extremely well. Through them I would also receive the next day’s news in advance.” 

Strange, isn’t it? According to WikiLeaks, a Joint Secretary in the MEA was quietly sharing classified information with the American Embassy in Delhi ; now, Kakodkar compliments some other patriotic IFS officers who refused to be bullied by the Americans! 

Unsurprisingly, Kakodkar went into oblivion after retirement in 2009, while the time-servers who worked for the Americans probably went on to occupy still higher positions and did extraordinarily well for themselves. Nice guys finish second, always. 

Kakodkar gives a lengthy account of the trials and tribulations through which our scientists worked in the BARC and affiliated establishments to develop India’s nuclear capability. The Americans spared no efforts to stymie the Indian capability (while largely acquiescing with Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear weapon programme.)

It is useful to remember the difficult path that our great country traversed to reach the point where it stands today. But, today, our time-servers speak about ‘shared values’ with the US! 

Kakodkar’s book makes one feel nostalgic for the India that is fast receding as distant memory. I salute Kakodkar as a great patriot, above everything else. 

Fire and Fury: Transforming India’s Strategic Identity by Anil Kakodkar and Suresh Gangotra, Rupa Publications, 2019