Some of those who have reservations on proceeding further with the 123 deal to get the waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) of 45 nations have raised the question whether a future Indian prime minister can order a Pokhran III if it became absolutely necessary. A response to this question will produce meaningful answers if it is raised seriously and not in a rhetorical manner.
Neither Indira Gandhi nor Atal Bihari Vajpayee sought the approval of any other nation or the international community before they respectively ordered Pokhran I and Pokhran II in the desert of Rajasthan. They exercised India's sovereign right to test. They were fully aware that there would be adverse reactions from the international community and they, after due consideration of all factors as known to them at that time, concluded that it was worth taking the risk.
On the other hand, the same Indira Gandhi ordered a nuclear test in 1983. The shafts in which Pokhran II test were conducted were sunk for the 1983 tests. According to various accounts, she instructed Raja Ramanna one day to conduct the test and the very next day she sent word to him to cancel the test. In between, the US ambassador met her and obviously told her that Washington was aware of the preparations. When Ramanna later asked her why she cancelled the test, she replied: "You don't want somebody to crack your skull. Do you?" In other words she concluded that at that moment it was not worth the risk involved in going ahead with the test.
P.V. Narasimha Rao directed in 1995 the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to go ahead and conduct the test. Detailed studies were also made on the adverse economic, political and technological consequences of the test. India was out of near-bankruptcy situation only four years previously. It was quite clear that unlike in 1974, this time the Indian test would be followed by a Pakistani test and India would have to bear the burden of criticism for both the tests. While preparations for the test went on, the US satellites were able to monitor those activities. The US brought to bear enormous pressure on India not to go ahead. Narasimha Rao succumbed to that pressure.
When I asked him about it he told me there was no unanimity among his advisers. I do not know whether this was an adequate justification for his cancellation. However he also told me that he had told Vajpayee all that was necessary on the issue. Immediately after Narasimha Rao's death, Vajpayee, in his tribute, acknowledged that Narasimha Rao did urge him to go ahead with the test.
Between December 1995 and May 1998, the Indian scientific establishment had perfected the art of camouflaging their activities at the test site. India's foreign exchange reserve rose further and made India less vulnerable to pressure. Vajpayee took the decision fully aware that the country would face enormous adverse pressure. Presumably he was confident of overcoming the adverse reactions, as he actually did.
Now under what circumstances will India need a Pokhran III? Russia, Britain and France have signed and ratified a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. China says it will ratify if the US does so. In the US there are reports that if a Democratic administration assumes office it might bring up the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) for ratification for the Senate. Meanwhile, a Congress legislated ban on testing is in force and in respect of renewable reliability warheads programme the emphasis is on not testing.
According to the Vienna convention on treaties, a state that has signed but not ratified a treaty is bound by the spirit of the treaty. This applies to the US and China. Therefore there is an overall ban on testing without total legal commitment by all nuclear weapon powers. This overall ban was breached by North Korea, which was a member of the NPT and the CTBT but withdrew from it evoking the withdrawal clause and conducted a nuclear test. That led to a six-nation group (the US, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and North Korea) negotiating a deal which substantively met the North Korean demands against its agreement to dismantle its nuclear facilities.
Iran is suspected to have an ongoing nuclear weapons programme and it is under immense international pressure not to become a nuclear weapons state. In India's case, the 123 agreement, the India-specific IAEA safeguards and the NSG waiver will acknowledge India not as the sixth member of the NPT but a state with nuclear weapons entitled to international nuclear cooperation. In that sense one may say India's position will be unique in the international community.
Will India need a test ahead of all other nuclear nations? Or will India consider the need for a test only when some other nation breaches the present formal nuclear test ban? We do not know. It is obvious that whatever the 123 agreement and other documents may say if India were to be the first to conduct a test breaching the present ban the consequences will be severe. A future prime minister may decide that India's national security needs such a test and India must accept those severe adverse consequences. In that case it is India's sovereign right to go ahead.
India cannot be seeking permission of others for the test and no other nation will ever give that permission. Insisting on some formulation that would permit India to conduct tests without penalties is an acknowledgement of lack of adequate consciousness of our sovereign rights. If today major powers like the US, China and Russia are in a position to breach the formal test ban and conduct a test, it is not because of any legal formulations but because they are very strong nations which cannot be easily sanctioned.
Therefore those who want India to have such a sovereign right should help to strengthen India by liberating it from technology apartheid and not seek verbal formulations that in realpolitik is of little use and which in any case India cannot get.