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Don’t settle for a lesser India

An important strategic milestone was passed when Prime Minister Vajpayee declared in Parliament that the Indian nuclear deterrent was not &#...

Written by Bharat Karnad |
May 28, 2003

An important strategic milestone was passed when Prime Minister Vajpayee declared in Parliament that the Indian nuclear deterrent was not “Pakistan-centric” and that the country, in fact, had more serious threats to deal with.

He said this by way of rejecting Islamabad’s proposal for a “nuclear free zone”—a concept that makes sense only if it is assumed that the nuclearised subcontinent exists in a power vacuum and/or that Islamabad’s military fixation with India should evince from New Delhi an equal and opposite response—a military fixation with Pakistan.

No doubt, Pakistani strategic planners are convinced about the reasonableness of equating their country to India because the Indian establishment has a habit of exaggerating the minor threat posed by Pakistan.

Realistically-speaking, Pakistan should constitute no more than a blip on our threat radar. Vajpayee’s statement suggests that the Indian political leadership may at last have seen the light and is in the process of positioning India in the correct weight class.

But if it is not Pakistan then what, in fact, are the strategic threats facing India? The prime minister did not elaborate. But reading between the lines of what he has said since the one-sided war waged by the US-led coalition forces in Iraq, it may be fair to conclude that the US as possible forceful intervenor is beginning to agitate Vajpayee.

Defence Minister George Fernandes’ recent political fluff of a trip to Beijing notwithstanding, China retains its place at the head of the list of potent adversaries India may have to tackle in the future. This is a wise change in the government’s mindset. It is a relief that New Delhi is exiting the never-never land it has graced for many decades in which it perceives friends and foes: “Friends” doing nothing unfriendly and foes doing little else.

In the real world, though, nations are Janus-faced acting to further their sovereign interest whatever it takes, and depending on the issues, pushing for “cooperation” when it helps them and resorting to forceful means when these are deemed necessary, with both channels being worked simultaneously.

Thus China wants cooperation after having permanently disadvantaged India strategically by assisting Pakistan become a nuclear-armed missile state and it wants to buy time by putting off an equitable solution to the border demarcation issue using various diplomatic promises ruses in the hope that given the differential in economic and military growth rates, it will soon be able to exercise force majeure.

The US, likewise, commends India’s help in the fight against “international terrorism” except when it comes to treating Pakistan as the locus genesis of the Al-Qaida-Taliban variety of terrorism.

Moreover, it acknowledges India as a coming power and “strategic partner” and hopes to play the potential “India card” against China but actively discourages India from acquiring strategic armaments with reach and clout to help it resist Chinese stratagems and, generally, to establish its credentials as a consequential power.

The legion of nay-sayers in the country, who are content with a lesser India and argue that all plans for national assertiveness are unaffordable, should refer to the historical record.

Almost all great powers have become “great” on the basis of unarguable military strength. Military power combined with economic reforms geared to exploiting the entrepreneurial genius of the people is the answer, not the absence of the former and the holding back on the latter.

In any case, it is this combination that will lead to concessions and to the opening up of trade and commercial opportunities in Asia, as well as buttress the respect with which India is treated abroad. Surely, it is precisely this lack of respect that the prime minister hopes to correct by enlarging India’s strategic nuclear focus.

That, nuclear weapons-wise, the government always had the larger threats in mind was obvious from the prime minister’s letter to President Clinton justifying the 1998 N-tests which identified China as New Delhi’s chief cause for anxiety. Vajpayee’s latest statement in Parliament is only an elaboration of that position.

Alas, the Indian military is yet to align itself with the government’s thinking. The armed services still seem hung up on Pakistan with some senior officers going to the extent of saying that insofar as the existing 15-20 kiloton yield warheads and short-legged strategic delivery systems in the Indian inventory can do duty only against Pakistan, Pakistan is the primary nuclear threat!

But the military is in this rut because the government has not followed up the 1998 explosions with an open-ended series of tests to create a more meaningful fusion explosion data bank to facilitate realistic simulation for computer-aided weapons in the future and physically to test and verify, to the satisfaction of the user-Services, newer boosted-fission and thermonuclear weapons designs capable of large yields and carried by different weapons platforms.

It has also not resolved the pros and cons of an overly-centralised command and control (C&C) system vis-a-vis one with delegated authority. The result is something of a hodge-podge C&C system configured to breakdown in times of stress.

Nor has the government thought beyond an essentially peace-time, de-alerted, de-mated deployment scheme in which the nuclear cores (handled by the Department of Atomic Energy) are inserted in the warheads (under the control of the Defence Research & Development Organisation) which, in turn, are mated to delivery systems held by the designated armed service to carry to the final launch points for the purpose of initiating the triggering sequence.

In a nuclear crisis, such a system is as likely to fall apart as to be preemptively destroyed by conventional precision munitions or tactical kiloton nuclear strikes by a superior adversary.

Under the circumstances, the military sees no premium in planning for nuclear contingencies involving major powers because it is not persuaded that such “minimum” nuclear deterrent as India possesses is “credible” or even survivable against any threat other than Pakistan. This explains the localised nuclear war plans and preparations by the Armed Forces. And why all these factors are resulting in India’s strategic reduction.

The writer is research professor, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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