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The BJP and the forks in India’s nuclear story

LiveMint logoLiveMint 20-05-2014 Gayatri Chandrasekaran

India’s nuclear deterrent is one genuine non-partisan story with all parties—the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and others—putting the nation first.

In its manifesto for the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP said it will:

1) Study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times.

2) Maintain a credible minimum deterrent that is in tune with changing geostatic (sic) realities.

This has been variously interpreted and has even been thought of as revisiting India’s nuclear posture. A nuclear posture is part of a country’s policy on what it does with nuclear weapons if it is attacked.

India has always maintained that if attacked by nuclear weapons it will retaliate with its own atomic devices. This, as India calls it, is credible minimum deterrence. Scholars call it assured retaliation. (For a typology of nuclear postures and their applicability in South Asia, see the article “Posturing for peace?: Pakistan’s Nuclear Postures and South Asian Stability” by Vipin Narang, International Security, Vol 34, number 3, Winter 2009-10, page 45).

Pakistan, in contrast, has changed its nuclear posture twice. In its early nuclear history—from 1986 to 1998—it relied on a simple concept of deterrence: the mere existence of a nuclear weapon was sufficient to deter India. It did not matter if Pakistan had the ability to deliver this weapon and any command and control systems. This was not meant to be. The primary audience for the Pakistani weapon was not India but the US. The calculation being that in case India attacked, the US—fearful of nuclear escalation—would intervene and save Pakistan. No wonder that this is labelled a “catalytic posture”: it catalysed third party intervention.

This worked at least twice. The strategy depended on a gamble: that the US would always come to Pakistan’s aide. But what if the US was not available, what if US-Pak relations turned sour?

After India carried out nuclear tests in 1998, Pakistan got the excuse it wanted. On the one hand, the Indian threat was too strong to be ignored and on the other hand, the US was unlikely to come to its help. (Note that this is at least a decade before US-Pak relations nosedived).

Since then, Pakistan has always believed in the first use of a nuclear weapon. It allows it to undertake a range of conventional operations against India—from terrorist strikes (Mumbai 2008) to regular military operations. It is in its interest to reduce the nuclear exchange threshold—the trigger point when it will use a nuclear weapon against India—to almost zero.

Indian frustration is obvious. Under a nuclear shadow, Pakistan has pretty much done what it wants. It has deterred India against even small conventional operations. Kargil in 1998 is an ambiguous case as it took place too close to the nuclear tests to allow a reasonable analysis of nuclear postures.

What the BJP has signalled—in a very confused way—is an Indian rethinking on no first use of nuclear weapons. The first part of the party’s statement in the manifesto conveys the impression that India may abandon its non-first use stand. The second part, which talks of a credible deterrent, hints at continuity with its assured retaliation posture.

But is this really confusing? Could India be evolving a complex doctrine with different postures for different countries?

The danger with giving up a no first use position is that it is costly. To be credible, India will have to demonstrate it by launching a nuclear attack in case Pakistan attacks it.

It is not without benefits. If India does move to that position, it may end up deterring Pakistan. But then South Asia will be on a nuclear hair trigger.

Global Roaming runs every Tuesday to take stock of international events and trends from a political and economic perspective.

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