Dr Rajesh Rajagopalan teaches at his alma mater, the School for International Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) – a haunt that is and has been home to thinkers in the strategic field such as Amitabh Mattoo, Kanti Bajpai, Prof S D Muni, Matin Zuberi, and Varun Sahni et al. He holds a PhD from City University, New York, and he has worked with Indian think tanks as the leading Institute of Defense Studies and Analysis and the more recent Observer Research Foundation. He has also had a stint with the National Security Council Secretariat. Strong credentials as these bear recounting in order that Rajagopalan’s case that the nuclear dangers apprehended in South Asia are a trifle exaggerated is taken seriously. This thesis he elaborates in his Penguin publication of July this year: Second Strike: Arguments about Nuclear War in South Asia. (New Delhi, Penguin Viking, July 2005).

Second strike, the term: In nuclear strategy, second strike capability is a country's assured ability to respond to a nuclear attack with powerful nuclear retaliation against the attacker. It counters a first strike nuclear threat and can support a no first use nuclear strategy.
-- Wikipedia.

 •  Of nukes and counter-nukes
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Rajagopalan's logic is that the risks of nuclear war are commensurate with the kind of nuclear doctrine adopted by the states in a conflict pair (India and Pakistan). Nuclear doctrine provides the conceptual tools determining the development and employment of nuclear weapons. Aggressive doctrines are more dangerous, while those more relaxed are relatively safer. His argument is that the nuclear doctrines of Pakistan and India are based on 'existential deterrence' theory. In this approach, there exists the threat of nuclear war in the mere possession of nuclear weapons by the adversary. This knowledge is enough to build in prudence and restraint into wartime or crisis decision-making. He notes approvingly that despite the rhetoric, the actual crisis behaviour of both states has been of war avoidance character. This outcome he attributes to successful deterrence within the existential deterrence framework.

Second Strike: Arguments about Nuclear War in South Asia, Rajesh Rajagopalan. Penguin Viking, New Delhi, July 2005.

That Rajagopalan is the bearer of glad tidings is not adequate reason to let his argument of a 'stable nuclear deterrent relationship' existing in South Asia off the hook of critical scrutiny. His very first footnote refers patronisingly to ‘writer-activists’ as Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy and N Ram and their ‘polemics’. His position to the contrary that ‘South Asia is somewhat more stable than generally thought’ is obvious. However, an implication of this Freudian slip is that the nature of his effort must be non-polemical, i.e. better researched, academic, referenced, rational and therefore more credible if not downright appropriate. This is surprisingly the terrain on which the writer slips despite his power packed CV recounted earlier.

First, the term ‘existential deterrence’ has been around long enough for it's meaning to be well known. In Indian strategic literature it is now about a decade and a half old dating to 1987, when in the wake of the infamous Ex Brasstacks-Op Trident crisis, Pakistan let on that it had the Bomb in an interview of the father of their Bomb, the now notorious nuclear entrepreneur, Dr A Q Khan, by India's leading dove, Kuldip Nayar. The term ‘existential deterrence’ has been used to convey the deterrence related outcome of a covert nuclear capability, along with other terms coined during the decade prior to the Shakti tests of 1998 such as non-weaponised deterrence, recessed deterrence, etc.

The term continues to be used in the same context elsewhere and even today. This is evident from current reports of Iran opting for the ‘existential deterrent’ option - characterized as such by none else than Strobe Talbott, the India friendly counter proliferationist of the Clinton administration. The term is also most frequently used in describing the Israeli nuclear deterrent.

In deterrence theory, the competing approaches to 'existential deterrence' are 'deterrence by punishment' and 'deterrence by denial'. From its very formulation that the Indian nuclear doctrine is based on the former approach – “nuclear retaliation to be massive so as to inflict ‘unacceptable damage’”. Rajagopalan on the other hand believes that ‘Indian nuclear forces are expected to deter by their capacity to retaliate with certainty rather than because of their capacity to destroy the adversary in a retaliatory attack…’, thereby making the doctrine fall within the logic of existential deterrence. Admittedly, the mere fact that retaliation will ensue would cause an opponent to pause. However, India has set itself a wider aim, not relying solely on the deterrence impact of mere possession of a retaliatory capability. India also has to reckon with the presence of China that had served to legitimise it going nuclear – recall the Vajpayee letter to Clinton in the wake of Pokhran II. Interestingly, China does not even merit a mention in the index of the book. There is no escaping the impression that Rajagopalan has been self-serving in his argumentation.

Likewise, the Pakistani doctrine lends itself to inclusion in the latter approach -- 'deterrence by denial'. While Pakistan has made no explicit declaration on nuclear policy so far, its rejection of the No First Use principle and that its nuclear capability is also serving to deter conventional Indian attack, indicates that nuclear use is contemplated in armed conflict. This may indeed be as a last resort and in a later time frame as reckoned by Rajagopalan. Nevertheless, that they aim to deny India any gains and exact a price for its aggression through nuclear first use, albeit in extreme circumstances, indicates that they profess ‘deterrence by denial’. For Rajagopalan to say that "Pakistan’s view of nuclear deterrence fall(s) more within the existential deterrence framework, rather than the nuclear war fighting framework represented by ‘deterrence by denial’" would therefore call for greater academic rigour than has been on display on his part in this attempt at standing well recognised and widely accepted positions on their head.

An equally glaring omission as that of China from Rajagopalan's radar screen has been the evolution in India's ‘proactive’ conventional doctrine -- one that posits limited war under nuclear conditions, dubbed by Pakistan as 'cold start'.

 •  The calculus of 'cold start'
 •  Political courage and the next step