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23 May 2013, Gateway House

A battle of nuclear narratives

On April 24, former Indian Foreign Secretary, Shyam Saran, spoke in depth about India’s nuclear weapons policy. How can his speech be instrumental in dismissing the doubts that some in Washington have had over the credibility of India’s nuclear deterrent?

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A rare articulation of India’s nuclear doctrine by a widely-respected former official should go a long way in fighting misperceptions and deliberate distortions of Indian policy, in both the West and the near abroad.

Shyam Saran, India’s former foreign secretary and current chairman of the National Security Advisory Board, delivered an important speech in New Delhi on April 24, where he clarified some of the basics – why India went nuclear, why it tested in 1998, how it views its strategic environment, and how it will retaliate if attacked with nuclear weapons.

The speech was a welcome peek into an opaque world and a much-needed salvo in the fight of narratives waged by battalions of think tankers in conferences. Narratives can take on a life of their own, often feed officials too busy to dig deep, and sometimes shape policy.

In Washington – the main battleground – the credibility of India’s nuclear deterrent has been questioned by some. Saran’s response is timely and helpful in demystifying the subject and for sorting fact from fiction.

The strategic community is treating the speech as a pointer to official policy, even though Saran insisted he was not speaking for the government. However, the mere fact that he spoke about something that is decidedly shut behind multiple walls of secrecy means it was not a maverick move.

It was almost a speech of necessity – forced by questionable declarations about India’s nuclear programme in the West and mischief-making by bottom-feeders. Some U.S. analysts have said India doesn’t have a clear “theory of how nuclear weapons might be used other than as an instrument of national pride and propaganda.”[1]

Statements from Chinese experts have been in a similar vein – India wanted nuclear weapons only to be “accepted as a world power.” This is laughable coming from a country that has actively used Pakistan as a proxy to pose a nuclear threat to India, by supplying it with nuclear and missile technology.

“Chinese assistance to Pakistan’s strategic programme continues apace,” Saran revealed. But U.S. experts simply black out China’s role when talking of nuclear threats in South Asia. Fact selection is an art in this battle of narratives.

Saran’s history lesson ought to help clarify that it was exactly the opposite of “pride and propaganda” that made Indian leaders first contemplate the nuclear option. It was India’s security environment, never allowed to stabilise after Independence, that pushed them toward a weapons’ programme. When taken together – China’s 1964 test, the discriminatory Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968, the 1971 Bangladesh war and the Sino-U.S. axis targeting India, reports throughout the 1980s that China had given Pakistan the design of the nuclear bomb, that China may have tested a Pakistani weapon at Lop Nor, and Pakistan’s support for the Khalistan movement – pride or prejudice hardly seem to be the driving sentiments.

The 1990s marked the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the U.S. as a “hyper-power” with the break-up of the Soviet Union, which in turn narrowed India’s “strategic space.” The final straw was the push for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would have permanently closed India’s options. India decided to break the ring of containment and conduct nuclear tests in 1998 despite the political and economic costs of western sanctions. A draft nuclear doctrine was unveiled in 1999 and an official doctrine was adopted in 2003. But the doctrine has not been made public, which leads to the uninformed debate today.

Saran tried to set the record straight by listing the main elements in detail: a triad of land, air and sea-based nuclear assets, a command and control infrastructure, a secure communication system, a two-person rule for access to weapons and delivery systems, an executive council which includes the three service chiefs, and a regimen of regular drills.

Some western experts have questioned the credibility of India’s nuclear deterrent because they sense that the armed forces are not fully integrated into the decision-making process. Saran argued that nuclear weapons under exclusive military control are neither “necessary nor desirable.” In a democracy, the deployment and use of such weapons rests with civilian leaders informed by the advice of the military. The military’s inputs must be enhanced, no doubt, and civil-military coordination improved, but these “shortcomings” can’t be an argument that India lacks a credible nuclear deterrent.

The same experts cite Pakistan’s Strategic Planning Group, which oversees its nuclear weapons, as professional, effective and transparent. But how is it better to leave seminal decisions about nuclear weapons to the military, whose compulsions are not rooted in the larger national political and economic outlook? Currently, the Pakistani military is frenetically building a larger arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons in the midst of a fast radicalising population. How would it isolate and safeguard nuclear assets “amidst an increasingly dysfunctional polity?” Saran asked.

Saran also took on the idea that the Indo-U.S. civil nuclear agreement has somehow upset the “nuclear balance” in South Asia – a line pedalled at the recent Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, in Washington DC, by Pakistani speakers – and only a similar deal for Pakistan would restore it. He called it an “insidious campaign” because there is no moral equivalence between the two countries – if India’s nuclear record is clean and responsible, Pakistan’s is unclean and one of “serial proliferation.”

If India’s weapons are seen as driven by status, Pakistan’s arsenal is seen as somehow more justified and driven by “real security threats.” The culmination of this argument often is: If only India would accept restraints on its programme, threats from the “most dangerous part of the world” would diminish. And all would be well.

But western experts are largely quiet about Pakistan’s current strategy – to deny India the option of conventional retaliation in case of another terrorist strike, by lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. It has developed small or tactical nuclear weapons for use against advancing Indian troops. “This is nothing short of nuclear blackmail, no different from the irresponsible behaviour one witnesses from North Korea,” Saran said. Pakistan is essentially showing it has a license to use terrorism as state policy by threatening nuclear war, he argued.

But if India is attacked with such weapons, its “nuclear retaliation will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage” on the adversary. It doesn’t matter whether the weapon is tactical or strategic from India’s perspective. “Any nuclear exchange, once initiated, would swiftly and inexorably escalate to the strategic level. Pakistan would be prudent not to assume otherwise as it sometimes appears to do,” Saran said in the most explicit quasi-official statement so far.

The most important salvo was Saran’s argument for more transparency and more public data about India’s nuclear programme. The secrecy is counter-productive now because it creates “an information vacuum” into which flows speculation. The “guardians of our strategic assets” can make the nuclear doctrine public minus the operational details. It is the people, after all, who pay for it.

Seema Sirohi is a Washington-based analyst and a frequent contributor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. Seema is also on Twitter, and her handle is @seemasirohi

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[1] Shyam, S. (2013, May 09). India’s nuclear weapons not for national pride. The Tribune. Retrieved from Accessed on 23 May 2013.

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