Opening itself to Opposition taunts of a Clintonesque Wag-the-Dog syndrome and risking a fresh burst of global outrage, the Vajpayee government today drowned its domestic sorrows for a moment by test-firing the intermediate range ballistic missile, Agni-II.
The missile, with over 2,500-km range, can cover entire Pakistan, strike targets deep in China and carry nuclear as well as conventional warheads.
The sophistication and reach of the missile indicated that it was designed to meet any threat from China, rather than Pakistan. The first missile in the Agni series, the 1,500-km Agni-I itself can reach most Pakistani missile sites.
The extraordinary media spectacle that followed the missile launch was capped by a television address to the nation by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Basking in the blaze of the lift-off, the Prime Minister used the limelight to hardsell the achievements of his government and quoted Guru Govind Singh to assert that ?when I am obliged to fight, I fight to win?.
Vajpayee and his frontline advisers tried hard to portray the test-firing as another milestone in the mould of last May?s Pokhran II, but the Prime Minister himself strayed from the theme hardly minutes into his speech.
Vajpayee did not make any explicit reference to either the stand-off with Jayalalitha or the crisis confronting him, but a touch of anxiety made it to his speech when he implored that the need of the hour is ?unity and stability?.
The Opposition was quick to smell a diversionary tactic behind the missile trial and claimed it was intended at preparing the ground for a glorious exit of the BJP-led government, if the need arose.
?They want to keep their balance sheet intact and are sending a message to the electorate that they are being forced out of office for no wrong-doing,? said a senior Congress leader, referring to Vajpayee?s move to chart the government?s achievements.
But, barring the Left, most Opposition parties said little in public, other than grudgingly lauding the move, indicating the government has managed to throw them off-track at least for a day, and, more important, on the eve of Jayalalitha?s supposedly make-or-break trip to Delhi.
Even the ADMK ? which, without realising that the test has been carried out, criticised the Centre earlier in the day for softpedalling the issue ? later spoke with caution and congratulated the scientists, claiming many of them are from Tamil Nadu. The party limited its criticism to questioning the timing of the launch.
The Left, which also complimented the scientists, was more categorical. ?It is similar to Bill Clinton ordering bombing of Iraq when he was faced with impeachment proceedings,? CPM politburo member Sitaram Yechury said.
Others drew a parallel to the Hollywood movie, Wag the Dog, in which a US President engineers an external showdown in a bid to ride out a domestic storm.
A hesitant Congress was the last to react to the test. Spokesman Ajit Jogi framed a statement to suggest that it was the result of an endeavour that had been going on for over 20 years, since the time the Congress spelt out its missile programme. Unofficially, however, the party?s leaders questioned the timing and wondered why it was necessary at this particular date, given that the government?s very survival was in question.
The government?s logic that this was no diversionary tactic rang hollow because relationships with Pakistan and China have of late shown signs of normalising.
The government did not elaborate on the ?security concerns? that triggered the test, but said it had to be carried out today because of a technical deadline ? ?missile window? in defence parlance. If the deadline had expired, it would have been difficult to conduct the test after the onset of monsoons, the government said.
But the Opposition said the government had more than enough time earlier and claimed in private that the exercise was planned only last week, after the crisis erupted in the coalition.
Though low on details, the government went on a public relations offensive, firing on all cylinders. ?It was a text-book launch,? crowed information and broadcasting minister Pramod Mahajan, who announced the test first. ?Today is a great day for India,? a beaming Fernandes, accompanied by Pokhran hero A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, told reporters after returning from the test site in Orissa.
Leaving a trail of white smoke and tracked by naval ships, the 20-metre-long missile soared from the Inner Wheeler Islands at 9.42 am. Carrying a 1,000-kg payload, the missile reached its target in 11 minutes as scheduled. International shipping and airlines were warned to stay out of the test zone.