Thursday, 15 October 2020




To begin with a brief Clausewitzian theoretical recap, that politics supersedes the strategic sphere.

Strategic theory has at the top of the intellectual pyramid political ideology.

Political ideology, when combined with constitutional verities, strategic culture, strategic circumstance etc, informs strategic philosophy at the next lower rung.

Strategic philosophy determines strategic doctrine.

While political ideology may be found in party manifestos, a national security white paper articulates the strategic philosophy and sets out the strategic doctrine.

The overarching strategic doctrine is translated by down-stream national security doctrines, such as the nuclear doctrine, and more narrowly, military, joint and service specific doctrines. 

Political ideology varying from radical on either end can vary from liberal to conservative.

Each has a counterpart strategic philosophy: offensive realism or defensive realism. While radical ideology lends itself to offensive realism, conservative and liberal ideologies can settle for either offensive or defensive liberalism.

Defensive realism is the husbanding of enough power to fulfil the ends of state and societal security, whereas offensive realism is to nurture power for its own sake, and, in addition to security, for other purposes such as for prestige.

The strategic philosophy determines the bias in strategic doctrine ranging from defensive, deterrence, offensive and compellence. 

With that as theoretical prelude, I will confine myself to Indian political developments, their strategic implications and their meaning for nuclear doctrine.

The principal feature in Indian politics over the recent past has been the firming in of the right wing at the helm of the state. As the government’s self-advertisement goes, it is a markedly different one from its predecessors. This self-confessed difference is important to register.

The political philosophy informing the Indian state is that of Hindutva. The reelection of the nationalist party last year led to its self-confidence in furthering its national transformation agenda.

What then are the strategic implications of Hindutva?

It is yet again an oft-reiterated self-advertisement of this government that it is offensive, proactive, muscular and strong-on-defence. It usually points to the ‘surgical strikes’ as evidence.

Theoretically put, it can be taken as a philosophical shift from defensive realism to offensive realism.

In terms of strategic doctrine, India’s subscribing to offensive realism means that it is now at the offensive segment of the defense-compellence continuum.

National security doctrines - that include military and nuclear doctrine – can therefore be expected to reflect this bias.

This is easy to see in conventional military doctrines.

The ‘Cold Start’ doctrine (CSD), as the name suggests, is an offensive one. The last army chief at long last publicly took ownership of the doctrine. The media from time to time carries reports of its ongoing operationalization of CSD, such as creation of integrated battle groups etc. 

What of the nuclear doctrine?

Whereas the nuclear doctrine has remained unchanged from its adoption in 2003, there are pulls aplenty for changing its critical pillars: No First Use; the balance between ‘credible’ and ‘minimum’; and the nature of retaliation.

To briefly mention two interlinked developments: the discussion around the NFU and the direction of technology.

Technical developments make feasible a move away from NFU.

The technical developments open the possibility of a counter force posture and thereby a potential move to first strike.

However, the professed nuclear doctrine remains unchanged making assertions on such a movement speculative, even if this is informed speculation.

That the official nuclear doctrine remains frozen could mean either of two things: one, that it has not changed or, two, that transparency - that doctrine promulgation itself suggests - is now replaced by ambiguity.  

It is easy to infer that with a changed political ideology, strategic philosophy and strategic doctrine there would be a change in nuclear doctrine.

The current nuclear doctrine informed as it is by ‘deterrence by punishment’ is already in the offensive deterrence segment, as against defensive deterrence in which is located deterrence by denial.

Further, the nuclear doctrine is not so much for deterrence alone.

The earlier conception was that nuclear weapons are to deter nuclear weapons use against India.

However, India’s nuclear doctrine adds ‘against Indian forces anywhere’. Thus, the nuclear doctrine is also being used to expand the scope for conventional operations.

Consequently, the nuclear doctrine is beyond offensive deterrence and bordering on compellence.

What are the strategic implications?

While the government is self-congratulatory on its muscular record on defence, I offer a moderating perspective.

Let’s take the ‘surgical strikes’.

The Pakistan army brushed off the surgical strikes on land. There was much ado over the effectiveness of aerial surgical strikes.

This means that while India may be quicker on the draw, it is wary of escalation.

Its response to the Chinese intrusions has also been rather reticent.

The explanation to the counter-intuitive continuation of ‘strategic restraint’ – the strategic doctrine of its predecessor - by this government lies at the political level.

The ruling party has an aspirational, transformation agenda. This is largely in the internal domain, a make-over of India. It is currently in the consolidation stage. It can afford to do without escalatory diversions in the external plane.

It hopes to reinforce deterrence against diversions from outside by projecting doctrines that are more offensive in content than actual. This projection of muscularity outside also has an internal utility, of consolidating Hindutva.

Thus, the change in doctrines is a work-in-progress. As Hindutva definitively takes over Indian political culture, India can be expected to self-consciously change doctrines.

India’s transformation to a majoritarian democracy is not assured. Covid, an economic downturn and the Chinese have upset the applecart somewhat.

Thus, a persistence in the doctrinal status quo is likely. A continuity in strategic restraint is foreseen. 

In the end, to get back to the topic – “India’s evolving nuclear thinking: Motives and strategic underpinnings”.

India’s evolving nuclear thinking is currently aspirational since its political motivations in Hindutva are now under consolidation.

However, the two are mutual constitutive. Nuclear doctrinal shift will help consolidate Hindutva as much as consolidation of Hindutva midwives a new nuclear doctrine. 

As to what might happen on Hindutva’s dominance of political culture is an open - and intriguing - question.