India's Deterrent Logic

10/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The 'truth' relativists would have had a field day in India in the past week. Midway through the week, an explosion took place in the news realm that shook the nation. A top defense scientist of the country, now retired from government, Dr Krishnamachari Santhanam told an audience of experts at a seminar in New Delhi that the country's first thermonuclear (hydrogen) explosion (bomb), conducted in May, 1998, was a 'dud.'

That seeming, tell-all admission from a participant in a highly controlled and a super secret operation to make the country a nuclear weapon power shook the establishment to the core. There began a barrage of disputations of the Santhanam claim. Leaders like the former president of the country and India's best known rocket engineer, APJ Abdul Kalam declared that radio-chemical analyses of the traces of material from the test site had conclusively proven that the hydrogen bomb explosion was a success.

The country's top nuclear scientists like former atomic energy commission chief, Dr R Chidambaram weighed in with his own evidence of the success of the test. But Santhanam was not about to yield ground. He knew he was on apparently solid grounds because soon after the tests in 1998, western scientific institutions had sought to question India's claims on the basis of their analyses of seismic data. At that time scientists from the apex Bhabha Atomic Research Centre wrote quite a few papers to challenge the contentions of the Western scientific institutions and establish firmly the fidelity of the Indian tests.

Santhanam's admission about the failure of the Indian hydrogen bomb raised the speculation once again that whether India needed to conduct more tests to uphold the credibility of its nuclear deterrent. This would mean that the country would have to lift its self-imposed moratorium on further nuclear testing - the bedrock on which the recently concluded Indo-US nuclear deal; and the attendant Nuclear Suppliers' Group waivers for free nuclear commerce rest.

Many in New Delhi believe that Santhanam's statement was geared towards goading the political leadership in India to decide in favor of further testing. These people feel that Santhanam represents that section of the Indian elite opinion, which does not want the country to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that they fear, would soon be on the agenda of the Barack Obama administration in Washington.

India under the previous National Democratic Alliance regime of Atal Behari Vajpayee had assured the Bill Clinton administration about its commitment to sign on to the CTBT though the country had abjured the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as discriminatory towards less powerful states than the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Since the US Senate did not ratify the CTBT, it did not enter into force globally thus not making imperative for all states of the world to adhere to it.

In the process, it had hindered the campaigns of the American nuclear nonproliferation activists to push their agenda around the world. They were further undermined by the changed priorities of the George W Bush administration that saw the nuclear dilemma in less than moral terms, which a Democratic Party government was wont to do. Thus with the return of the Democratic Party to the White House and the US Congress, the nuclear nonproliferation 'ayatollahs' - as the group is often called by those who are on their cross-hairs - could consider to be back in business. The Indian policymakers are naturally apprehensive about the mood of the new administration on the nuclear issue when it involves the country.

The policy establishment in New Delhi has watched with rising apprehension the appointment of some members of the nonproliferation crowd, who had opposed the Indo-US nuclear deal, to key administration positions. But at the same time, many key policymakers take the fact that the deal with the US has conferred on India arguably a de facto nuclear weapon state status, very seriously. So the latter often weigh in favor of India acting 'responsibly' in terms of upholding the established nuclear order; in effect make the country endeavor to not be at odds with the USA and the West on the issue.

To them, even the talk of another test is an anathema. When confronted with the possibility that Santhanam's statement might have raised grave doubts about the credibility of the Indian nuclear deterrent that could lead an adversary make serious miscalculations, they come up with a counter logic, which has its own merits. They say that no country can ever hope to debunk contrary conclusions of other nations about the results of a nuclear test. For, by the very nature of the tests, the analyses of the after-test parameters have to be tightly restricted for the sake of maintaining secrecy about the nature of the nuclear weapon tested. Thus it becomes an example of circular logic of the nature of 'your word against mine' which effectively has no conclusion.

From that perspective, India does not need another test just to silence the doubters.