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Murmurs of Nuclear Instability in South Asia : Is Someone Shaping the Narrative?

IS Panjrath Writes:Vipin Narang, author and Mitsui Career Development Associate Professor of Political Science at MIT and a member of MIT’s Security Studies Program, set the cat among the pigeons by suggesting that India’s nuclear strategy, if not the doctrine, might be undergoing some significant changes.Narang’s analytical U-turn is not an isolated one-off observation.

IS Panjrath Writes:The 2017 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference took place on March 20 and 21, 2017. On the agenda was a plenary session on the topic, “What are the most likely scenarios for the first use of nuclear weapons in the next five years on the NATO-Russia periphery, in South Asia, and in Northeast Asia?”[i] Vipin Narang, author and Mitsui Career Development Associate Professor of Political Science at MIT and a member of MIT’s Security Studies Program, set the cat among the pigeons by suggesting that India’s nuclear strategy, if not the doctrine, might be undergoing some significant changes[ii] by suggesting that, “there is increasing evidence that India will not allow Pakistan to go first. And that India’s opening salvo may not be conventional strikes trying to pick off just Nasr batteries in the theatre, but a full ‘comprehensive counterforce strike’ that attempts to completely disarm Pakistan of its nuclear weapons”. Complete text of his prepared remarks can be found at Ironically, this assessment, that India plans to junk the NFU, throws out of the window his own analysis of India’s nuclear posturing – that of ‘Assured Retaliation’ based on his ‘theory of optimisation’ so eloquently articulated in his much acclaimed book, “ Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era”.

Narang’s analytical U-turn is not an isolated one-off observation.

Earlier in January, Hannah Haegeland, in her piece, “The Terrifying Geography of Nuclear and Radiological Insecurity in South Asia”[iii] built a case to suggest that, contrary to conventional wisdom, it is India’s nuclear facilities that are more vulnerable to terrorists and non-state actors, than those of Pakistan. They say that the devil lies in the detail. However, this idiom gets an entirely new meaning when statistics and figures are used to prove a point, howsoever out of context e.g. “India is estimated to have 57,443 medical X-ray units and more than 12,000 devices that use radioactive materials for industrial and medical applications” and these are all vulnerable to “low probability but extremely high-risk threat of nuclear and radiological terror.” The same figures could well be utilised by the WHO to reflect the dismal state of healthcare facilities in the world’s second most populated country – No wonder Evan Esar believed that statistics is the science of producing unreliable facts from reliable figures!

The Stimson Centre, too, has recently launched its ‘Off the Ramps Project’ aimed at generation of creative ideas that can help ameliorate and decelerate this dangerous triangular nuclear competition between China-India-Pakistan. In with its inaugural article titled, “Launching an Expanded Missile Flight-Test Notification Regime”, Frank O’Donnell[iv] posits that, “China, India and Pakistan are engaged in a nuclear competition of growing intensity”.

Why is it that South Asia in general and India in particular are being selectively singled out as threats to global security when there are far more serious  concerns – the Islamic State, Al Qaida, Taliban and belligerent North Korea being a few of them. And if one considers the events of the past year in due fairness, the new administration in the US as well as activities of Russia and China have not helped the cause of global peace and stability. Viewed from the Indian perspective, the reasons could be interesting, but not entirely surprising.

The first reason is perhaps, the perceived indispensability of Pakistan as a geo-political pivot for the security needs of the West. Despite its near failed state status with an overbearing military control (an understatement of sorts!) as also the fountainhead of global terror Pakistan remains a state  which is not easy to let go off. It is not only its utility as a rentier state with an important geo-strategic location, but also as a counter balance to the two growing Asian powers, China and India. Also, there is a valid morbid fear of a disintegrated Pakistan – implying that it is better off in its present form and any move to isolate and abandon it may have disastrous consequences. Therefore, any threat to Pakistan in its present form is seen as inimical to western interests and hence the need for effective counterbalances.

The second reason is the emergence of India as growing power. The rise of China has not been easy to digest and if there is one country that has similar potential, it is India. The West would never want to allow this shift in the global order and no matter what, the ‘strategic apartheid’ is here to stay. India has time and again displayed its resurgent capabilities, be its nuclear programme despite sanctions post 1974 or 1998, its handling of East Pakistan crisis in 1971 or the economic revival of 1990s and is now well on its trajectory of overall growth despite pressures and conflicts of internal chaos associated with its third world status. What has perhaps raised hackles in the West is the emergence of a majority regime which has shown a determined resolve to break the status quo, not only in hitherto-fore lethargy towards domestic reforms but also travel the extra mile in dealing with matters of foreign policy and national security. The decision to go in for surgical strikes on terror launch pads across the LoC, large scale demonetisation and initiatives to curb the black economy, the PM’s personal push towards foreign policy initiatives across the globe and the recent passing of the Finance Bill all point towards the will of the government with a passion, alacrity and perseverance not seen in Delhi since decades. The fact this has the backing of the hugely diverse and Indian populace (as proved by recent elections) further substantiates that the drift is here to stay and is not just a passing phase.

Coming back to the subject of nuclear instability per se, the trends in writings, themes and agendas of various Western Think-Tanks highlighted above seem to be in sync with a narrative being shaped to place the Indian security establishment on a back foot. This is not to suggest that these should be totally ignored. However, while the powers that be must take cognisance of the loopholes and vulnerabilities to plug the gaps wherever required, the underlying agenda to shape the narrative needs to be countered on facts and logic. Towards this recently published articles, “India’s Nuclear Doctrine is Robust and requires no Review”[v] and “Time to nuke the storm in the teacup”[vi] are well timed and relevant in order to counter the narrative being shaped!

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