Contours of India’s Nuke Politics

During the last half-decade, the aptness of India’s nuclear doctrine has been mused, in both academic and political circles. In March 2011, senior BJP leader Jaswant Singh was quoted saying that the Government cannot “sit in yesterday’s policy”. The Delhi-based Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) had constituted a Task Force in 2011 to formulate an alternative blue print of what could be India’s nuclear doctrine (2012). In light of the BJP assuming power with an overwhelming majority under Narendra Modi as Prime Minister, the issue of ‘change and continuity’ of India’s nuclear posture merits serious introspection.

In the pursuit of examining the contours of India’s future nuclear posture, keeping in mind the BJP’s pledge to “revise and update” the nuclear doctrine, four overlapping trends can be analyzed. First, compared to the role of political parties, national political leadership is paramount in nuclear matters. Second, nuclear policy does not change with the change of government, but sometime changes despite the same party forming the government. Third, the stature of the Prime Minister in the party he/she belongs to is the determining factor. Lastly, when the Prime Minister’s position in the party is stable but not the national political scenario, major nuclear decisions have been arrived at mainly via the initiative of the Prime Minister. To substantiate these trends, let’s analyze the six decades of political-nuclear interface in India.

Nehru’s leadership of the Congress Party and his ideas on foreign policy and defence matters were unquestioned and unchallenged. Mainly after the Sino-Indian border debacle, there emerged some dissent among Congress party members on Nehru’s defence policies. However, subsequent leaders of the Party have seemed not to have such a grip over the Party, therefore, decisions on nuclear issues in subsequent years have faced mêlée. For example, Lal Bahadur Shastri, a Gandhian and against nuclear weapons, succumbed to Party pressure and authorized the Subterranean Nuclear Explosion Programme (SNEP).

By the time Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister, the split between “pro-bomb” and “no-bomb” within the Congress Party was wide. But Mrs. Gandhi was more into stabilization of her leadership and her government. During her second-term as Prime Minister, she had absolute control over the Party, and her equation with Party Presidents like Jagjivan Ram, Shankar Dayal Sharma, and Dev Kanta Borooah was cordial. Moreover, the East Pakistan crisis and her decisive action won her the identity of a ‘strong’ leader. It is believed that during this time she ordered the nuclear explosion.

The Congress Party under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi won 415 out of total 542 Lok Sabha seats in 1984. With the image as a young dynamic leader, Rajiv Gandhi advocated for eventual and phased elimination of nuclear weapons in the UN General Assembly. Had his proposal been seriously taken, Rajiv would have given a different tilt to India’s nuclear posture. Realizing the difficulty in nuclear disarmament initiatives, he constituted a committee which prescribed for a minimum credible deterrent of about 100 warheads to be developed in about seven years and with the cost about Rs 7,000 crore.

The strong will among centrist parties to unite together not to allow the BJP to come to power helped Prime Minister Narasimha Rao to strengthen his position and sustain his coalition government. By this time, the divide between pro-bomb and no-bomb had waned and the question was whether any government could test and manage the wrath of the world community. Rao gave the go-ahead for a nuclear test in 1995. Behind Manmohan Singh’s resolve for the Indo-US nuclear deal was the strong backing of a cohesive, strictly hierarchical Congress Party devoid of internal dissent on nuclear issues. Similarly, absolute unanimity can be observed among the BJP cadres on nuclear issues. Atal Bihari Bajpayee, L.K Advani, Jaswant Singh, Jaswant Sinha, Rajnath Singh, Susma Swaraj, Arun Jetly and Venkeiya Naidu, etc. have unanimous view without doubt. Though Vajpayee took the 1998 nuclear test decision without taking all members into confidence, his policy was not in contrast to any other BJP members.

Replacement of one government by another party has not always brought shifts in India’s nuclear weapons policy. For example, after Nehru, Shastri despite his anti-nuclear stance kept the nuclear option open by saying that “India should not embark on nuclear weapons programme now.” Indira Gandhi did not take any substantial nuclear policy decisions during her first term as Prime Minister, as her main focus was strengthening her position, but did authorize a test in her second term. Subsequently, the Janata Party-led coalition under Moraji Desai did not roll back India’s nuclear policy though it was averse to nuclear weapons. Reverse was the case with Congress Government under Rajiv Gandhi which was prepared for phased elimination of nuclear weapons provided all other nuclear powers were ready to do so. But his successor Narasimha Rao, leading a multi-party coalition, gave an order for test preparations. When the BJP came to power, it robustly pursued and carried forward the nuclear policy of Narasimha Rao.

Moreover, except for Lal Bahadur Shastri, all other Prime Ministers seem to have taken important nuclear weapons decisions when their position within the party they belonged to was stable, but not the national political scenario. Indira Gandhi went for Pokhran-I test when her position within the Congress was dominant but the political scene at the centre was not smooth. In 1998, when Vajpayee went for Pokhran-II tests, his position within the BJP was unchallenged but the national political situation was unstable owing to the absence of a clear majority in the legislature. Lastly, when Manmohan Singh decided to separate India’s strategic nuclear programme from the civilian, mainly for pushing through the civil nuclear cooperation with US, his position within the Congress Party was devoid of dispute but the national political situation was no better as he was heading the UPA coalition where the CPI(M) was hesitant to go along.

Given these patterns of nuclear decision making in India, one can extrapolate how the BJP and Modi will pursue their pledge to “revise and update” India’s nuclear doctrine. The BJP has promised an “Independent Strategic Nuclear Programme” that constitutes: (a) study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times; (b) maintain a credible minimum deterrent that is in tune with changing geostatic realities; (c) invest in India’s indigenous Thorium Technology Programme.

First, to understand what an Independent Strategic Nuclear Programme means to BJP, one needs to keep in mind the reason why it criticized the Indo-US nuclear deal. It viewed the nuclear deal as “a trap”, more discriminatory than treaties like the NPT and CTBT. A section of the Party, ideologically closer to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), virulently opposed the deal as “capitulation of the country’s sovereignty and national interests”. The specific reason “why BJP opposes the deal” is over a provision in the treaty that threatens to demand the return of all equipment and fuel supplied by the US if India tests any nuclear weapons. Therefore, an ‘independent nuclear programme’ of BJP would largely mean independent nuclear decision making, devoid of US pressure, and restoring India’s right to further nuclear tests which it views as having been “frittered away” by the Congress Party under the Indo-US civil nuclear deal. However, revising the terms and conditions of the Indo-US nuclear deal to restore India’s right to test would be impossible unless the Indo-US nuclear deal is scrapped.

Second, the promise to study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it to make it relevant to challenges of current times is a relatively easy task now as Narendra Modi in a TV interview has clarified that he would not alter the doctrine that Vajpayee had laid down, especially the ‘no first use’ posture. Most probably, BJP may authorize the NSAB to debate on the utility of current doctrine and do nothing thereafter. Of course, one can explore alternative postures India may opt for, but not without costs. Three plausible postures can be envisaged. No visible alteration in the provisions of the doctrine can be a safe option keeping in mind its acceptability today and India’s aspiration for NSG membership in the future. India would look for a doctrine which can provide “flexible response” options “allowing policy makers every possibility in a crisis – pre-emptive strike, counter-force and counter-value targeting, even assured destruction through massive retaliation.” This option is more easily said than done. Lastly, by going the extra mile in the Indo-US strategic partnership and civil nuclear cooperation, the BJP may bargain for retaining India’s right to further tests with assurance of not exercising this right. This would be an equally difficult option to obtain.

Third, the BJP’s promise to “maintain a credible minimum deterrent that is in tune with changing geostatic realities” is debatable, but not necessarily alarming. Currently, India maintains a credible minimum deterrent in principle, and the BJP must make it more robust. Certainly the geopolitical realities have changed, especially with Pakistan possessing tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs). With nuclear-capable cruise missiles and miniaturized nuclear warheads, Pakistan has lowered the nuclear threshold in South Asia significantly. The imperative for India therefore is to develop a robust cruise missile defence or defence against short-range missiles threat. On the other hand, though Sino-Indian relations are largely smooth now, Chinese military modernization and its ASAT capabilities should be taken seriously. Therefore, the third leg of India’s nuclear deterrent with SLBMs, BMD, MIRV and hypersonic cruise missile programme can be promoted to bestow upon India capabilities far beyond the minimum credible deterrent. In this pursuit, Modi government need not revise the nuclear doctrine significantly.

One may argue that a revision of India’s nuclear doctrine is long overdue. Western scholars view India’s current doctrine as similar to the US doctrine of massive retaliation during the 1950s. Since the debate has surfaced in the political arena now, one can expect that the doctrine will undergo official scrutiny sooner or later. Nevertheless, how the BJP will go about it and what shape it will culminate in is too early to conclude. As nuclear weapons are a sensitive issue, and for Modi as a new political leader in the national scene, the future contours of India’s nuclear deterrent would largely rest on his evolving stature in the Party.

If past trends in nuclear decision making vis-à-vis domestic politics are any guide, Modi would first strengthen his position in the Party while shaping the functioning of his government according to his own conceptions. Though the national political situation seems stable with the end of the three-decade coalition era, the position of the new Prime Minister vis-à-vis the party he belongs to is yet to be consolidated. How Modi’s equation with other stalwarts of the Party would evolve is a matter of conjecture. Therefore, equating BJP’s nuclear tests decision in 1998 with its urge to revise India’s nuclear doctrine today would be misleading, more so when other pressing foreign policy concerns need immediate attention.

Posted in , Deterrence, Doctrine, India, leadership, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons

Sitakanta Mishra

Sitakanta Mishra

Dr Sitakanta Mishra is currently an Assistant Professor in the School of Liberal Studies at Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the Cooperative Management Centre of the Sandia National Laboratory, Albuquerque. He was formerly a Research Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi and Associate Editor of the Indian Foreign Affairs Journal, New Delhi.

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