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India’s 1998 nuke ‘fizzle’

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N M Sampathkumar Iyangar

Eleven years after assisting Prime Minister Vajpayee in 1998 to divert public attention from the mess his government had created, India’s top science bureaucrats are issuing shrill denials of the startling revelations by senior scientist K Santhanam, who was coordinating director of India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) for Pokhran II, the mission for conducting a second series of nuclear blasts. His admission undermined the credence of India’s claims to have perfected the technology. The thermonuclear devices were the only “technology advancement” over the detonation of a crude device in 1974 at Pokhran. India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) projected Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as Durga, the Hindu goddess of power to gullible Indians. Flouting solemn international agreements not to develop weapons in return for technology led to India’s isolation. The then chief of DAE, Raja Ramanna, is hailed as the “father of the Indian N-Bomb” for hijacking the nuclear programme from its original power-production orientation. The absence of scrutiny turned the DAE into a den of nepotism and corruption. The termination of the self-imposed 24-year “moratorium” on testing with Pokhran-II prompted Pakistan to let A Q Khan go ahead with its own tests.

While boosting Vajpayee’s image and fuelling a ruinous arms race in the subcontinent, the “grand achievement” also helped big sharks in India’s energy sector thwart calls for reforms. Every other sector had to undergo ruthless performance reviews and face flab-trimming since the early 1990s after the country went into bankruptcy. Pokhran-II bailed out DAE mandarins who had siphoned off funds with the promise of generating “20,000mW by the year 2000” through nuclear power. Nine years later the DAE has failed to establish even 10 per cent of that capacity.

Santhanam’s disclosure that the test of the thermonuclear device that he coordinated was a “fizzle” has let a cat among the pigeons.

Outgoing naval chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta attempted to dispel the doubts raised by the disclosure on the capabilities of India’s nuclear arsenal by saying that “as far we are concerned, we go by the views of the scientists. They have given us certain capability and that is capable enough to provide deterrence and they are proven.” Notably, these are the warheads to be carried in retrofitted warships that India plans to acquire by shelling out a fortune. Mehta has been instrumental in wrapping up long-pending mega deals with Russia to please his political masters and is reportedly eying a lucrative advisory position. He volunteered: “We are a nation that maintains a credible deterrence and that is more than enough to deter anybody.” The fizzle of 1998, he thought, should not worry as India was anyway following a “no first strike policy.”

Dr R Chidambaram, the DAE chief in 1998, was visibly agitated by the shocker from his senior scientist. He declared, “There is no controversy over the yield of Pokhran-II nuclear tests. The claims are absurd.” Anil Kakodkar, then director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) who currently heads the DAE, said: “Pokhran-II tests were a complete success and they achieved 100 per cent desired results.” Most Indians do not realise the results consisted only of warding off threats to Vajpayee from his rivals in the BJP.

Santhanam’s shocker angered Brajesh Mishra, Vajpayee’s national security advisor, the most. The prime minister had brought back the wily bureaucrat, his loyalist who had retired long back, for masterminding the stunt. Mishra said: “Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, who was then the scientific adviser to the defence ministry, had openly said that the 1998 nuclear tests conducted in Pokhran were successful. It is enough that Dr Kalam said that they were successful. Dr Santhanam was working directly under Dr Kalam. That should set the record straight.”

What Mishra failed to mention was that Dr Santhanam had genuinely obtained a PhD after years of slogging in laboratories. On the other hand, all doctoral degrees of “Dr” Kalam are honorary, conferred due to his official sinecure status after he superannuated as a space department staffer. Kalam was later made president of India by a grateful Vajpayee India in return for his services to him as a “nuclear scientist.”

Kalam came to the rescue of the bosses: “After the test, there was a detailed review, based on the two experimental results: (i) seismic measurement close to the site and around and (ii) radioactive measurement of the material after post shot drill in the test site.” The bureaucrat-speak glossed over the fact that the “review” was only by the departmental babus. They have absolutely no autonomy for proper verifications and consequently claim little credibility with international authorities.

Just as Jaswant Singh, a senior Vajpayee aide, risked his expulsion recently from the party by writing to set right the Hindu fundamentalist propaganda against Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Santhanam too risks being disowned for his confessions about the nuclear fizzle. Why did he have to do it? He has provided a clue by supplementing his disclosure with the assertion that “we should not get railroaded into signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. We can’t get into a stampede to sign and should conduct more nuclear tests, which are necessary from the point of view of security.” Obviously, the anti-reforms lobby, with entrenched interests that thrive in the DAE, has made Santhanam its front to maintain the status quo. It is the last-ditch attempt of big-time contractors supplying make-believe imitations for the nuclear facilities after doing deals with unscrupulous officials to sabotage opening up the sector. Civil nuclear cooperation and falling in with responsible nations of the world will end the isolation and expose the real worth of fakes, projected as “brilliant scientists” with numerous breakthroughs to their credit.

The minuscule returns the DAE obtains currently out of the huge real estate, served by excellent infrastructural facilities, including ultra-modern townships, in its possession at various locations points out the tremendous surpluses competitive players can make from privatising the sector. However, that will threaten comfortable the lifestyles of thousands of white-collar DAE staffers – brilliant brains transformed into deskbound pen-pushers rather than scientists by being forced to grope in darkness for years. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government, committed to economic reforms and liberalisation, could only secure the defection of the top saboteurs of the reforms process. Direct and indirect inducements could bring around Kalam, Chidambaram, Kakodkar, Mishra and several influential politicians, including top Communist heavyweights on board the reforms bandwagon. The Santhanam bomb only demonstrates that the anti-reforms lobby is furious at being let down by them. The idea is to embarrass them and put them on a slippery wicket with regard to demands for further nuclear proliferation with a Pokhran-III. It shows that Singh has a long way to go in purging India’s foreign ministry and strategic establishments of hawks who are hand in glove with elements keen to frustrate Singh’s reforms agenda.

The writer was a subcontractor of the Indian nuclear and space establishments before their focus veered to weapon development. Email:

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