On August 26, senior Indian nuclear scientist K. Santhanam publicly questioned the success of India’s 1998 nuclear tests. Calling the thermonuclear experiment a “fizzle,” he endorsed the need for new tests. It has been over a month, but the controversy surrounding his comments has yet to subside. The New York Times even published an editorial yesterday warning adamantly of the danger of new Indian tests. This raises an important question: just how deep are India’s pro-test roots?
Every once in a while, a high-profile government official (or ex-official) will make a half-baked comment implicating his or her country in controversial activities or intentions. Such comments are generally rebuffed by national authorities who clarify the nation’s “official” position. Though attention grabbing, these comments must be taken with a dozen grains of the finest sea salt.
For example, Brazil’s Vice President Jose Alencar told journalists on September 25 that Brazil should advance a nuclear weapon development program. Other officials quickly moved to dissociate Alencar’s personal view from governmental policy. Nothing has come of this impetuous statement, and we can reasonably expect that nothing will.
But not all provocative views are so easily quelled. This appears to be the case with K. Santhanam’s claims. His comments represent the first time a nuclear scientist involved in the 1998 Indian tests has denied the official government stance that the tests were sufficient. Though a wide range of high-ranking officials — including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Atomic Energy Commission chief Anil Kakodkar, Home Minister P. Chidambaram, Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Sureesh Mehta, and former National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra — promptly repudiated Santhanam’s statement, the debate rages on, thanks in large part to “a powerful but small group of nuclear scientists, diplomats and military experts who wish to prevent Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from supporting Obama’s call [for the CTBT].”
In the immediate wake of the U.S.-drafted UNSC resolution on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, India reiterated its opposition to both the NPT and CTBT. This gesture surely satisfied K. Santhanam and his gang, but their influence on India’s position was likely negligible. India has long opposed the discriminatory nature of the nonproliferation regime, and it was fully expected to uphold its contrarian stance.
As the world gets closer to the possibility of an effective CTBT, Santhanam’s persistent voice is disquieting. India has articulated its continued resistance to the CTBT as a stance of principle, not of subversion. Santhanam’s claims, however, indicate that opposition to the CTBT may already be (or soon become) part of an actual desire for more tests. Even if Santhanam’s pronouncement does not ultimately prompt tests, his claims could fracture the domestic consensus required for CTBT ratification.
President Obama may be worried about U.S. domestic politics thwarting the CTBT, but he should pay attention to political challenges abroad as well. India is one of the nine CTBT hold-outs whose ratification is compulsory for the treaty to enter into force. Without exaggerating the dissent, Obama must work with the Indian government to repel the Santhanam position, lest it become the ultimate stonewall to the CTBT.