Two significant scientific accomplishments of India lost their sheen on the same day. The news of the loss of contact with Chandrayaan-1 flashed across the screens with an equally unexpected admission by one of the architects of the 1998 nuclear tests that the yield of the thermonuclear device was lower than what was claimed by India. Both are disappointing developments for Indian science, the latter with major strategic implications. Nothing succeeds like success and partial success will be seen as partial failure.
Dr. Santhanam, a frequent visitor to Washington during my days there, has a bit of Puckish humour about him and a certain transparency, which is unusual for nuclear scientists, bearing the burden of the nation’s secrets. But on matters of strategic thinking and scientific reasoning, he is precise and clear. It is for this reason that his sudden revelation, the first of its kind from the scientific establishment, surprised everyone. His statement carried such credibility that the whole weight of every one concerned came down heavily on him. Dr. Abdul Kalam, Mr. M.K.Narayanan, Mr. Brajesh Misra, Dr. Chidambaram and Dr.Kakodkar spoke in unison to disown Dr. Santhanam. The usual suspects in the dissident group of scientists, Dr. Prasad and Dr. Gopalakrishnan remained skeptical. The official position that the tests were a “huge success” and that the thermonuclear device had a yield of 60 kilotons was reiterated.
It is the way of the world that the general public will give greater credence to a “maverick” view rather than the establishment view as such doubts have been raised by outside agencies and strategic thinkers in India. More importantly, we need to analyze the repercussions that the Santhanam statement may have internationally. With the nuclear deal in position and the Obama Administration moving slowly, but steadily towards the CTBT and wondering whether the US should have any nuclear trade with India at all, the nuclear establishments around the globe must be revisiting the India file.
“I would like to declare on the floor of this august Assembly that India will never sign this unequal Treaty (CTBT), not now, not later” stated Ambassador Arundhati Ghose in the UN General Assembly on September 10, 1996. Those words reverberate around the globe even today, though much has happened since, including Prime Minister Vajpayee’s expression of readiness to reconsider the matter if everyone else accepted the CTBT. But nothing that has happened till today has altered the reasons for the Indian position in 1996. There is no greater commitment to disarmament today, the discriminatory aspect still remains and violation of international law in the form of article 14 on Entry into Force is still there.
What has changed is the nuclear status of India, India’s moratorium and the nuclear deal, which involves the NSG waiver. Though the moratorium is voluntary, it has assumed a certain international significance as it is at the centre of the nuclear deal. Everyone understands that there is no deal without the moratorium. We have no obligation to sign the CTBT anymore as the Prime Minister’s assurance predates the nuclear deal. The CTBT itself is embroiled in the domestic politics of the US and its international power equations. Dr. Santhanam’s claim that he chose to make the revelation to reduce pressure on India to sign the CTBT, therefore, is far-fetched. Pressure on India to sign the CTBT is not an immediate contingency. President Obama has to find the required number of votes in the Senate to ratify the CTBT before he embarks on his messianic mission to bring it into force.
What the Dr. Santhanam statement does is calling into question the credibility of the Indian nuclear establishment. The findings put out by India have already been challenged by others, but Dr. Santhanam was one of those who were present at the test site with others in military fatigues. His crossing over to the side of the skeptics will be a serious challenge to the scientific establishment. His explanation that India needs more tests despite the moratorium will only make India suspect in the nuclear community. However well intentioned, his statement can only do more harm than good for India. The world outside will recall the passionate demand for testing at the time of the negotiations on the nuclear deal.
The question facing the nation relates also to the credibility of the minimum deterrent, a matter which may interest our adversaries. Dr. A.Gopalakrishnan and others have asked whether it is necessary at all to have a thermonuclear device when we already have fission weapons in our arsenal. It may be more productive to invest in research and development of fusion weapons and also participate in ITER. The higher priority should be for us to miniaturize the weapons and improve our capacity for delivery. Perhaps, this is what is implied by the confident assertion of the NSA and others that no further tests are necessary. In other words, the political purpose has been served and there is no requirement of further tests as Dr. Santhanam and others advocate. The objectives of the politicians and the scientists could be different, right from the beginning, according to Mr. CMA Nayar of the Kerala International Centre. The scientists may be disappointed, but the Government is not.
India has never revealed the specifics of the minimum deterrent. Mr. Jaswant Singh stated repeatedly that it was not a “fixity”. So no outsider can judge whether further tests are necessary to maintain the deterrent. Since the NSA has stated even after the statement of Dr. Santhanam that the test was only partly successful that no further tests are necessary, the Government is relying on the judgment of the mainstream scientists that the credibility of the arsenal is intact.
The non-proliferation Ayatollahs in the US will now go hammer and tongs at India for harbouring ambitions to test thermonuclear weapons and they will campaign against the implementation of the deal. No one can take away the NSG waiver unless India tests, but the needle of suspicion will be on India right now. The non-proliferation czars in the State Department will now be preparing for the eventuality of an Indian nuclear test. India will have to work overtime to restore confidence in bilateral relations. Dr. Santhanam’s bombshell will have an impact beyond our borders.