Politicians and scientists share a curious relationship in India. Unlike the US, where governments don’t flinch from cutting funds for research, scientists in India rarely complain of diminished budgetary support. However, no politician really dreams of a “minister, science and technology" epaulette on his CV because there’s little he can do in the decision machinery of these organizations. In a record of sorts, the UPA government, assailed by corruption charges, has shuffled three ministers in the past two years.

But in May 1998, every politician wanted to share the same stage as scientists. On 13 May, prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced that India had successfully tested five nuclear devices at Pokhran, a village in Rajasthan. In doing so, he supervised India’s transition from nuclear tyro to Asian military power and international pariah.

The beginning: The 1998 nuclear test in Pokhran village, Rajasthan, was a symbol of India’s emergence as an Asian military power. Photo Tekee Tanwar/AFP

While the most tangible aftershock of India’s insouciance was the lay, “we-did-it" euphoria of national pride, the real jolts—so entrenched as to have passed by almost unmentioned in journalistic literature—were felt indirectly by scattered Indian scientists who had to rapidly adjust to a period of limited cutting-edge equipment, know-how and funds.

After independence, Indian science, which was rooted in the political ethos of socialism, focused its budding scientific thrust on developing its nuclear and space capabilities, even as Watson and Crick’s new ideas of the structure of DNA and William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain’s invention of the transistor were playing midwife to modern biotechnology as well as the electronics industry.

As Kalam, who went on to become president, has recounted several times, even as our first rockets were being ferried on the backs of bicycles, there came up a group of bright, motivated youngsters—spurred by nationalistic pride—who were joining these defence and space establishments and building up know-how to create nuclear reactors, missiles and a scientific reputation.

By the late 1980s, the world was changing. The USSR was dead and the Internet was born. Swadeshi was passé and the World Trade Organization (WTO) and globalization were the buzzwords. Countries such as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea were becoming hothouses of electronic manufacturing. Competitive science was no longer possible without international collaboration and partnerships. The rapid obsolescence that began to characterize products of semiconductor technology such as faster and cheaper computers was due in no small measure to the philosophy of outsourcing.

Nuclear technology continued to be largely developed in Cold War silos even as space science began to break out of these constraints. Just when Indian space scientists were beginning to perfect the science of launching small- and medium-sized satellites, to the extent that they could confidently begin pitching India’s capabilities as a cheap, reliable purveyor of satellites on commercial markets, Pokhran-II happened.

India’s defiance of the existing superpowers, who were trying to direct and regulate the pace of its nuclear missile development capabilities by getting the subcontinent to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, meant that the UN Security Council condemned India’s action and gave a kind of moral sanction to the US to impose a variety of sanctions against India.

A telling editorial, that appeared in the 10 May 1999 issue of Current Science, a widely read science journal published by the Indian Academy of Sciences, said: “….the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai is almost exclusively devoted to ‘blue sky’ research, but is funded directly by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE)…This relationship has been a very fruitful one, with the TIFR budgets being insulated from the many uncertainties faced by institutions outside the DAE umbrella. Unfortunately, connection with the DAE now means that even scientists doing basic biology, chemistry or physics (mathematicians are apparently immune to the effects of sanctions) face great difficulties in getting chemicals and equipment from several overseas sources."

Because of that a slew of high-end technology products, such as blitzing high- performance computing machines, or “supercomputers", critical components for the Light Combat Aircraft—India’s flagship attempt at making its own aircraft engines—and other such paraphernalia, which were all part of a list called “dual use technologies", were hard to procure. This led to the deceleration of top-end science.

The reason this didn’t evoke sufficient consternation here was because in monetary terms, the bottom line economic loss to India was piddling—a few hundred million dollars—as most of the critical aspects of trade with the US, such as agriculture assistance, military equipment, etc., were left untouched.

Scientists involved in civilian research programmes recount several stories of how simple tasks, such as importing computers of particular specifications or procuring certain chemicals and rare components, became bureaucratic nightmares. Several times, devices would have to be separated into components, shipped to neighbouring countries—where such barriers didn’t exist—imported and then reassembled.

This didn’t put India into technology quarantine. In fact, it’s often argued that had it not been for this isolation, India woudn’t have institutions such as the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, which made our first supercomputers. This period, however, also marked the ascension of China as a major scientific powerhouse. Till the early 1990s, scientific publications by Indian scientists outnumbered Chinese output; the tables turned and remain that way. While India became the hot spot for the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry, it continued to lose on opportunities for basic science researchers. Most of the brightest, went to the IITs, did management from the IIMs and joined consulting outfits and multinational banks, instead of pursuing Phds, becoming inventors, heading technology start-ups and strengthening India’s manufacturing prowess. The sanctions weren’t the only reason for this state of affairs, but remain one of those big “what-ifs". What if there hadn’t been sanctions? Would we have more nuclear-powered electricity today? Wouldn’t we have less carbon emissions and thus greater leverage at international climate change negotiations? Wouldn’t the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) be launching far heavier satellites and be slightly better prepared for its proposed manned space flight mission? The government has now woken up to the paucity of quality institutions to train undergraduates for science, but wouldn’t institutes—the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, undergraduate courses at the Indian Institute of Science, the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology—have bloomed earlier?

It is no coincidence that since former US president George Bush’s visit to India in 2006 and the subsequent signing of the nuclear deal between the two countries, there has been an increase in international conference travel, greater funding and more research collaboration between the two countries, as well as more venture funding opportunities for Indian entrepreneurs.

Political and military motivations guided the Pokhran explosions in 1998. Reports were doing the rounds that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme was in an advanced stage and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), fresh from an election victory, had to act on election promises of “reviewing India’s nuclear security".

Earlier this year, India seriously began a push to develop solar energy technologies, and add 20 GW by 2020. Given that there is now another global scramble to harness the energy of the sun in an affordable, scalable manner, international cooperation is the order of the day. Winning that race may prompt politicians to once again joust for the reflected glory of India’s scientists.