Friday, 1 June 2012

Book Review
Bharat Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, Pentagon Press, Westport (CT), 2008,
pp. 221, Rs. 795.
ISBN 978-0-275-99945-2
By Ali Ahmed in The Third Frame
In his Foreword, noted India watcher, Stephen Cohen, notes the ‘special
role’ India will play in a globalized world. He recommends Bharat Karnad’s
India’s Nuclear Policy as ‘critical for understanding India’s evolution as a
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great power.’ This owes to the book seeking, in the author’s words, ‘to
reveal the workings of India’s nuclear strategy and posture.’ The author
has achieved his aim in ample measure in not only disseminating knowledge
of the inner workings of the growing nuclear complex, but also analyzing
the same through his, by now patented, lens of nuclear maximalism.
Karnad keeps China in the cross-hairs contending that India needs a
‘consequential thermonuclear weapons inventory’ in order to play ‘nuclear
hardball’ in case the strategic situation was ever to deteriorate. With respect
to Pakistan, he is of the view that India is in a position to ‘overawe the
Islamic extremists potentially presiding over a Taliban ruled nuclear Pakistan’
on account of Pakistan not being a ‘credible conventional or nuclear threat
to India.’ He reveals how the concept of ‘credible minimum deterrence’ is
evolving and being implemented with the views of the military brass
increasingly shaping nuclear policy. He apprehends, through his interaction
with the many retired military men he has interviewed for the book, that the
‘weak link in the deterrence chain’ is the ‘indecisiveness and lack of will of
the Indian political leadership to take hard national security decisions’.
Having set out his world view, he dilates on the maturing of India’s
nuclear and missile capabilities, perhaps for the first time anywhere in such
detail. After covering the better known foundations of the capability in his
second chapter, he deals with the little known ongoing developments in the
third. His last chapter is on the implications of nuclearization for Southern
Asia with respect to Limited War and nuclear crises. His scathing approach
to the Indo-US nuclear deal owes, to the ‘curb’ it places on Indian nuclear
capability, contrary to what he sees as the US’ own strategic intent of
wanting ‘India emerge as a credible countervailing presence to China in
That India is giving itself a variegated nuclear capability comes out
distinctly in his description, bringing coherence to ongoing disparate
developments with respect to missiles, acquisition of delivery systems and
platforms and nuclear weapons. After initially being driven in their
autonomous efforts by a need to best the challenge of a technology denial
regime, the scientists are now, in Karnad’s description, working towards
integrated goals informed by multiple organizations involved such as the
Strategic Projects Group in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Strategic
Forces Command. It is the eventual complexion of the outcome, brought
about by emphasizing ‘credible’ in ‘credible minimum deterrence’, that
requires interrogation.
Karnad discerns a force of about 200 weapons, and 100 in reserve,
being delivered eventually by a strategic triad. This figure is subject to
expansion as India emulates Chinese ‘Limited Deterrence’ conception for
political and strategic reasons. This highlights the policy weight that the
strategic enclave and the military combine have acquired. It has resulted in
a shift from the original conception of ‘minimum deterrence’ in which the
very possibility of inflicting ‘unacceptable damage,’ reasonably defined, in
return for nuclear ‘first use’ or ‘first strike’ serves as adequate deterrence.
For this all that needs to be assured is that a finite number of weapon
systems survive even a salvo of the order of a ‘first strike.’ The military
focus on assurance on the damage that can be inflicted in return is what
drives up numbers and sophistication of the deterrent. The strategic enclave
for institutional interests can be expected to prefer an expansive conception
of the deterrent.
Karnad is right that political inattention has likely led up to such a pass.
In his view, political pusillanimity is responsible for the creeping pace of the
operationalization of the deterrent. He brings out the military’s suspicion of
political resolve on the manner of nuclear retaliation. The military’s position
on early and reflexive retaliation is under grid, in Karnad’s assessment, by
its felt need to forestall self-deterrence. Such a constraining of political
options can also be seen in the Army’s adoption of the Cold Start doctrine
in which mobilization schedules likewise restrict space for political crisis
management. This brings into question the extent political control over the
nuclear complex, but not in the direction Karnad prefers.
A rethink of aspects bringing about self-deterrence is necessary. The
more important one is to preserve the national space from further atomic
impacts in case of a nuclear exchange. A government’s responsibility towards
its citizens is to ensure damage limitation. This can best be brought about
by terminating the exchange at its lowest levels possible. Even if, for instance,
Pakistan were not to ‘survive the first retaliatory salvo,’ ‘cease to exist’ and
is ‘finished’, it would not rule out the risk of attacks by remnants of its
strategic forces. It is not the absolute amount of damage, but the mere
possibility of it that deters. This conception of existential deterrence that
had one time informed India’s doctrine of minimal deterrence has been
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reflected on in Rajesh Rajagopalan’s Second Strike: Arguments of Nuclear
War in South Asia (2005, Penguin, New Delhi) and Rajesh M. Basrur’s
Minimum Deterrence and India’s Nuclear Security (2006, Stanford University
Press, Stanford). Karnad’s book helps revives the debate and if India is
moving along the expansive lines approvingly described by Karnad, then
liberal rationalists should join the debate yet again.
Described by Cohen as ‘one of India’s leading strategic thinkers,’ the
book is a recommended read to reappraise developments in the nuclear
field; best described in borrowing Karnad’s description of the earlier run up
to nuclearization, as nuclear operationalization by ‘autopilot.’