June 27, 2020
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Hasty Afterthoughts And A Paper Bomb

Few believe the BJP's claim that its N-doctrine is meant to generate a debate. Worse, in its pre-poll hurry, it may have left a few holes in critical areas.

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Hasty Afterthoughts And A Paper Bomb
The world be damned. The government is in election mode. And it's time to play to the gallery at home. First it was the victory at Kargil, then the downing of the Atlantique in the Rann of Kutch. Now it's the release of the Indian Nuclear Doctrine.

The reassertion of India's nuclear status, through a codified document, expectedly jangled a few nerves the world over. New Delhi's new-found friends in the Clinton administration were not amused. The US state department spokesman, James Rubin, described the move to develop a minimum nuclear deterrent as unwise, the Pentagon and the US National Security Council felt the same. They revealed that the President had called for restraint and a resumption of the Lahore process in letters to Vajpayee and Sharif last week.

Pakistan, on its part, launched its fusillade from both Islamabad and Geneva, where the Conference on Disarmament is under way. India, of course, stuck to its guns. Coming as it did after Kargil, the Atlantique and the announcement of India's neutron bomb capability, the timing of the doctrine has been like showing a red rag to the bull.

An action that could affect the limited sanctions waiver given by the US last year which comes up for extension in a month or so. The G-8 already has curbs on multilateral lending to India in place; the current move can only impact on these countries' decision to lift sanctions, whenever that happens. Japan too has expressed 'deep concern'.

Speculation in New Delhi was set off particularly after an agency report from Washington linked the release of India's nuclear doctrine to the continuing sanctions. It quoted a US official as saying,the 'G-8 have agreed to defer lending by international financial institutions for India's non-basic needs'. But diplomatic sources from a G-8 country in Delhi and mea officials denied any such link. Much anyway would depend on the Brownback and the Gilman amendments on waiver extension to India and Pakistan which will come up for discussion once the US Congress meets after recess next month.

Back home, the obvious question on everyone's minds is: why the hurry? To generate a debate in the country, the official version will have you believe. But ask others in the government and they snigger: 'You know why. It's election time.' Even those within the National Security Council advisory board, who fathered,it's an exclusively men's club,this slim document, are not convinced of any such honourable intentions on the government's part. 'Don't try to draw me on this,' said an insider. 'This is a political question. You have the answer as well as I do. Ask me questions on the doctrine.'

Clearly, the government's motives had little to do with initiating a debate and more to do with scoring brownie points before the polls. Expectedly, criticism from the opposition parties has been scathing. The Congress said the caretaker government had neither the political nor the moral authority to announce a document that might trigger a nuclear race. In any case, asks the party, did the nuclear deterrent help prevent Kargil. Echoing the Congress, the cpi(m) called this an 'illegitimate act'. Former foreign secretary S.K. Singh disagrees, saying: 'The doctrine is very serious and should not be thought of only in terms of petty politics'.

Agreed. But what about the strategic defence review the bjp had promised in its national agenda on the eve of the '98 polls? In it, the party had promised the setting up of a National Security Council (nsc) to 'undertake India's first-ever strategic defence review' and to induct nuclear weapons. The nsc is in place, Pokhran happened last year, and now the nuclear doctrine is here. There is no sign of the strategic defence review.

As for the nuclear doctrine itself, it says nothing new. 'The document is a general set of principles that have been reiterated time and again,' says a security analyst. 'The bjp, after all,' she adds, 'was the only party which had the guts to carry out the nuclear test, now they can draw political mileage. But to say it has nothing to do with elections, is wrong'. Jasjit Singh, member of the nsc advisory board, defends the lack of specifics: 'The document only gives a set of principles from which the policy should flow.'

Among its most significant features are: minimum credible N-deterrence; threat of use of N-weapons against India to invoke measures to counter that threat; any nuclear attack on India to result in punitive retaliation with N-weapons; India to adopt a no first-use (nfu) policy, that is, not be the first to use N-weapons, but to respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail; India not to resort to the use or threat of use of N-weapons against states which do not possess N-weapons or are not aligned with N-weapon powers; deterrence to involve sufficient, survivable and operationally prepared N-forces, a robust command and control system, and the will to employ N-forces and weapons; the N-forces to be based on a triad of aircraft, mobile land-based missiles and sea-based assets and the nuclear trigger to vest with the Prime Minister or the designated successor.

The document, of course, leaves a lot unanswered and ambiguous, and as Bharat Karnad, member of the advisory board, reveals: 'The consensus was to preserve the ambiguity. It enhances deterrence.' Consensus did prevail finally, though differences did crop up over specific issues. Among them was the nfu clause, a much debated issue inside the security establishment and the academia. Says Karnad candidly: 'I call nfu a fraud. If there is a war, it will be the first casualty. If India has intelligence of a nuclear strike, which government is going to wait, absorb it and then retaliate? nfu is fine as rhetoric.' Jasjit Singh disagrees: 'The only purpose of N-weapons is to deter the threat or use of such weapons by others. So it doesn't mean much to go for the first strike. But it does not mean accepting vulnerability. By promising retaliation, you deter the use or threat of use of N-weapons.'

Karnad also points to deficiencies in the control structure, which officially gives the last word to the PM or his designated successor on the question of an N-strike: 'When you have something like submarines, the control is decided by the captain of the sub. Because of extremely low-frequency communications, the launch authority has to devolve to the captain.' The category of ,designated successor' too has been kept a secret, unlike the transparency that obtains in the US.

Interestingly, none of the western nuclear powers,nor Pakistan,have the nfu doctrine. China has had it since it went nuclear. Perhaps that's why western scholars and governments are extremely uncomfortable with India and Pakistan's nuclear doctrines. India can at least claim to have a draft of the formal document, Pakistan, as Sartaj Aziz said on Thursday, is in the process of preparing one. But sceptics in the west say they don't know how things will develop in a situation of potential nuclear confrontation and whether these doctrines will be worth the paper they're written on.

Says Kanti Bajpai of the Jawaharlal Nehru University about the document: 'It's fairly classical. The idea earlier was that it would be a relaxed nuclear posture where the warheads and the delivery systems were to be kept separate. This is what people like K. Subrahmanyam had recommended. But it's a far cry from that. It indicates that retaliation should be speedy.' A valid point. But as Subrahmanyam said, the document was drawn up after long discussions with all 27 members of the advisory board.

Bajpai has other problems as well. 'In terms of retaliation they seem to have restricted themselves to talk about responding to nuclear threats. So does that mean they are not to be used against biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction?' he asks. He says the doctrine does not say anything about tactical nuclear weapons. 'So it seems by implication to have ruled them out,' he says. Another criticism is that the document considers only the survivability of the nuclear arsenal against a nuclear attack and completely ignores the survivability of the population. After all, what's the point of a nuclear arsenal if a large section of the population gets decimated? Nuclear doctrines drawn up by other nuclear powers in the past have first considered the protection of people from the first strike by the enemy.

Criticism notwithstanding, New Delhi remains unfazed. Reacting to the news of President Clinton having written to the Indian and Pakistani premiers, it put out a bland statement, which ended with a curious one liner: 'India is a responsible country and acts accordingly.' Yes, maybe, but then Clinton does not have to fight elections in two weeks.


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