With the dust having settled after observance of the tenth anniversary of Pokhran II, it is an appropriate time to review the implications of the nuclear developments since that landmark event. There has been considerable development in the nuclear field, and thankfully for democratic good health much of it is in the public domain. This allows an informed discussion, though unfortunately most of it has been of a pro-nuclear kind. This tends to overshadow two aspects that warrant closer scrutiny.
Revisiting the doctrine
The most heartening part has been that the nuclear doctrine adopted in 2003 was an improvement over its notorious predecessor - the Draft Nuclear Doctrine of 1999. Despite this, the new doctrine is not adequately explicit in some areas, and thereby lends itself to undesirable interpretation. For example, there is a view that the doctrine favours 'massive retaliation' - which it manifestly does not.
The operative part of the doctrine, which deals with the manner in which nuclear use is envisaged, reads as follows: "Nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere ... Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage". In effect India will respond with nuclear weapons to a nuclear attack, but a massive punitive response would only be in case of a 'first strike'.
This is understandable, since a 'first strike' is by definition a combination of decapitating and counter force attack. This is designed to disarm the victim and would likely result in untold civilian casualties. Therefore countenancing massive retaliation - meaning counter value targeting - to inflict unacceptable damage is legitimate, if not a compulsion. With most of its nuclear weapons targeted in the first strike, India would be left with no other option than city-busting, howsoever abhorrent this may be.
As for now, the element of confusion surrounding the doctrine needs be dispelled at a minimum. Fleshing out the doctrine - and spelling out what exactly would warrant massive retaliation - does not degrade either secrecy of war plans or the deterrent. This is a opportune time for clarifying matters as, fortunately, conflict has never appeared as remote as it has in recent times.
The strategic enclave, and 'high politics'
However one might understand all these nuances, there has been one undeniable consequence of the last ten years. There is now a large - and still growing - strategic enclave, comprising organisations dealing with nuclear weapons and high-end technology. This has strengthened the security establishment not only with respect to its mandate but also other sectors of polity. Consequently, relative power in institutions has passed to the defense sector, and the agenda of political discourse has been usurped by 'high politics'. This has wide implications for democracy.
The original critique of the military-industrial complex - of giantism, hyper-secrecy and over-centralisation - remains valid. The warning in US President Eisenhower's cautionary farewell address is acute in the Indian context. Weak coalition governments would be less able to control these autonomous institutions as they acquire strength in the coming years. Their share of national resource allocations, their increasing specialisation and expertise, and the 'holy cow' status they enjoy all place them in a better bargaining position relative to other sections in a democracy.
It must be remembered that a government that lasted a mere 13 days managed to order the nuclear tests, which in that instance were cancelled. And the next time around, the BJP-led NDA government went ahead with the tests without the strategic defence review that it has first promised and ordering preparations even prior to clearing the test of strength on the floor of the parliament.
A major feature of recent military developments in India has been the drawing closer of India and the US, as evident from the military cooperation underway and the larger embrace now being sought by the UPA government. Simultaneously, India has also pursued the development of a delivery system to cover China's eastern seaboard in the form of the Agni III tests, and strengthened the naval leg of its deterrence triad through preparing to acquire a Russian Akula class submarine by mid 2009. Taken together, these indicate that India is preparing to join Great Power games, with an evident goal being the containment of China.
Evidence of this can be gleaned from India's Ministry of Defence Annual Reports, that have now taken to defining Indian security interests, particularly energy security, as lying in an extra regional arc and spelling out India's intent to safeguard these. The future scenario is one of India contending in a neo-colonial and neo-realist game to retain - and even newly obtain - such energy interests, and often the risk of conflict in doing this cannot be discounted.
Ten years after Pokhran II, it is therefore apt that we pause to reflect on these issues of vital significance for the nature of our nation-statehood and collective future. The logic of the Cold War - in which our strategists have been schooled thus far - has to be challenged, and nuclear weapons seen to be threats not only to adversaries that they are designed for, but equally to their possessors.