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Modi at the Helm

Whither Nuclear Decision-making?

Ali Ahmed (aliahd66@gmail.com) blogs on national security issues at www.ali-writings.blogspot.in.

Nuclear decision-making, when examined at the institutional and individual levels, suggests that India’s case is fraught with shortcomings. This adds to the complications for regional security, already present on account of Pakistan’s nuclear decision-making being military dominated. The aggravated institutional infirmities of India’s nuclear decision-making structures and the authoritarian tendencies in India’s primary nuclear decision-maker, the Prime Minister, heighten nuclear dangers in future crises and conflicts.

The Rafale deal reworked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a visit to Paris early in his tenure has come under scrutiny recently. Critics have it that the jettison of the original deal—in which India was to get 18 aircrafts and assemble 108 separately—in favour of getting only 36 aircrafts in a fly away condition, albeit with India-­specific enhancements, has been to India’s disadvantage (Sinha et al 2018). The decision figures alongside the sudden demonetisation as another landmark decision by Modi. Critics have it that both cases lacked due diligence in processing. While then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar was seemingly out of the loop on the shift in the Rafale deal (Dutta 2017), it remains unclear which officials were consulted on demonetisation (Indian Express 2017). What do such major decisions bespeak of India’s ability to handle arguably the most fraught decision, that on nuclear weapons use?

The last four years have provided adequate insight into the workings of the Modi government. The Rafale deal, demon­etisation, and the roll-out of the goods and services tax are taken as the leitmotif on its decisiveness (Hindu 2018). These provide enough grounds to suspect that decision-making on nuclear weapon employment could well be problematic. This is troubling, particularly as the government is about to approach the voters once again for another five years at the helm.

Owing to its nuclear weapons overhang, South Asia has on occasion attrac­ted attention as the “most dangerous place on earth” (Hiro 2016). The contribution of the pathologies of Pakistan’s nuclear decision-making are rather better known (Narang 2014: 75). Pakistan’s military has deployed nuclear weapons as a cover to pursue a proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) (Joshi and O’Donnell 2018: 63, 79). While in the Pakistani decision-making structure, the Prime Minister has pride of place in the Employment Control Committee of the National Command Authority, in practice, the military controls nuclear decision-making (Narang 2014: 84). It can be inferred that the institutional interest of the military, which colours its vision of the national interest, can potentially render nuclear decision-making awry.

If this was not bad enough for regional crisis stability and escalatory pressures in conflict, the situation in South Asia is compounded by lesser remarked on deficiencies in Indian nuclear decision-making. This article examines the drawbacks in India’s nuclear decision-making, cautioning that these heighten dangers in regional crises and conflicts. Possible sites of shortcomings in nuclear decision-making are discernible in two ways. One is at the institutional level, with the peculiarities of the Modi government taken into account; and the second is in the character of the primary decision-maker, Prime Minister Modi. If the recourse to the process of decision-making is taken insufficiently, a matured decision is unlikely.

So far the perception has been that organisational position holders among India’s policymaking elite have had a “passive stance on nuclear issues” (Frey 2010: 198). The emphasis on nuclear decision-making discussions in strategic literature has consequently been on the necessity to demonstrate resolve and commitment by the leadership to order a massive or punitive retaliatory strike (Kanwal 2017: 190). The underside of decisiveness in nuclear decision-making reveals two issues: the decision-maker may be held to an image of dynamism and decisiveness, impelling a decision on nuclear use; and this may undercut the taking of recourse to deliberation in high-tempo and high-tension nuclear decision-making.

Institutional Level

The infirmities at the institutional level are owing to the overweening salience of Prime Minister Modi in the government. He rode to power in 2014, forming the first majority government in three decades. The campaign itself was seen as a presidential one, magnifying Modi’s profile and personality. Initial hiccups in cabinet formation were indicative of the problems ahead. For want of a suitably high-profile defence minister, the ministership was given temporarily to the finance minister. There have since been two ministers in the chair, with the finance minister coming back in the interim between the two for a second time. The current defence minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, did not have a traditional heavyweight profile (Hindustan Times 2017). This playing of musical chairs with a significant cabinet position undermines the decision-making table at which the defence minister sits alongside the finance, external affairs, and home ministers, namely, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), the National Security Council (NSC), andpossibly—since its composition is not known—the political council of the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA).

Of the other three ministries, the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s office is not only a busy one in itself, but he has faced health issues and grappled with party issues. A low profile has been thrust on External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, with Modi taking over 50 foreign trips, testifying to the centre of gravity of foreign policymaking having shifted from her ministry to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The home ministry’s disaster management role has been diluted with the National Disaster Management Autho­rity (NDMA), chaired ex officio by the Prime Minister, currently lacking a vice chairperson (News18.com 2015; NDMA nd). A low, technocratic profile of the NDMA furthers the centralisation at the PMO.

Centralisation implies a higher profile for the National Security Adviser (NSA). NSA Ajit Doval reputedly enjoys a close relationship with Prime Minister Modi. As secretary of the political council, his input is, thus, liable to become magnified. The upshot, first, is in an increase of bureaucratic weight, and lessening of ministerial weight in policy- and decision-making. The strategic-level perspective represented by the NSA as head of the executive council of the NCA needs to be superseded by political-level considerations provided by ministerial members of the political council. Dilution and asymmetry in salience between the two levels—political and strategic—tends to have an adverse impact on the political weight and considerations in nuclear decision-making (Ahmed 2010: 5). If the ministers around the table are restricted in terms of their power differential, the Prime Minister–NSA alignment can deflect decisions in directions other than what might have emerged from collegiate and deliberative political-level decision-making.

Second, personalisation, by making the Prime Minister more than the first among equals, results in going against the grain of the Westminster-style parliamentary democracy system adopted by India. An illustration of this is in the joint doctrine of the military, according the Prime Minister the decision-making authority within the political council (Rej and Joshi 2017: 21), which is at variance with the official nuclear doctrine of 2003 that states: “The Political Council … is the sole body which can authorise the use of nuclear weapons” (MEA 2003).

As for the executive council’s input, its advice collectively arrived at is to be conveyed by the NSA. The interrelationship between the NSA and the institutional heads in the executive council—who largely also sit in the Strategic Policy Group of the NSC system—corresponds to that of the Prime Minister and his political colleagues, one of power asymmetry. The other pillar of the NSC system, the National Security Advisory Board, which is expected to be a repository of national security expertise, has been run aground with its membership comprising four members, including the chair (Economic Times 2018), as against 22 members in the first advisory board headed by the doyen of the strategic community, K Subrahmanyam.

Individual Decision-maker

This brings up shortcomings in nuclear decision-making discernible in the character of the individual decision-maker. At this level, the character of the Prime Minister as decision-maker is consequential. Modi’s significance in his government—best illustrated by the information ministry employing some 200 media watchers to regulate the coverage of the Prime Minister by the media (Bajpai 2018)—magnifies the implications of him being the decision-maker.

Critiques of Modi popularly have it that his is an authoritarian personality. Such appraisals usually compare him with Indira Gandhi, infamous for the Emergency days. Sociologist and clinical psychologist Ashis Nandy (2002) has stated that Modi exhibits a

mix of puritanical rigidity, narrowing of emotional life, massive use of the ego defence of projection, denial and fear of his own passions combined with fantasies of violence—all set within the matrix of clear paranoid and obsessive personality traits.

Nandy (2002) writes that on emerging from the interview in which he formulated this impression of Modi, he felt he “had met a textbook case of a fascist and a prospective killer, perhaps even a future mass murderer.”

Modi’s electoral majorities over three successive elections in his home state, Gujarat, have reinforced his image of having authoritarian traits. He was able to fend off then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s possible move to oust him from chief ministership after the Gujarat carnage (Ullekh 2017). He withstood the scrutiny of the Supreme Court through its Special Investigation Team on his role in the carnage (Dasgupta 2012). Facing these challenges contributed to the rise in his political profile. The habits formed in Gujarat have come to define Modi and have carried over to governmental functioning at the centre.

As can be expected, the nuclear field has been affected (Ahmed 2017). The initial promise from a nuclear doctrinal review having found mention in the manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party was dashed with Modi silencing any talk of change, claiming nuclear weapons were a “cultural inheritance” (Reuters 2014). As a result, over the past four years, there have only been hints of possible change, such as in his defence minister making a personal observation in public on whether the no first use (NFU) policy tied down India’s hands (Kanwal 2017: 33–35). Consequently, the official doctrine, predicated on NFU and “massive” retaliation (MEA 2003), remains unchanged. The remainder of this article examines the implications of an unchanged doctrine when viewed through the organisational theory lens at the individual level.

Determinants of Decision-making

Four factors are likely to influence decision-making regarding nuclear use. First, is the Prime Minister’s image of decisiveness. This could tend to push for a quicker decision from the political council, overshadowing the abundant caution that needs to attend such decision-making. Second, is the strong-man image of the Prime Minister and the NSA, who respectively chair the two councils of the NCA. Apprehending a heightened reputational risk from a decision that does not conform to a tough line may lead to an unnecessarily harsh decision on the nature of Pakistan’s punishment for the temerity of going nuclear, albeit at a lower-order level of introduction of nuclear weapons into an ongoing conflict. Third, is the perceived reservations the Prime Minister and the NSA have of Pakistan, evident from the prevalent hard line towards Pakistan. Last, but not least, and compounding this issue, is the attitude that Prime Minister Modi has towards Muslims in general (Malhotra 2017).

The upshot of deliberations on nuclear retaliation is less likely to be in favour of restraint. India may go ahead with its doctrinal follow-through of “massive” retaliation, or a watered-down version: “unacceptable” damage. In a recent iteration of this by a former head of the Strategic Forces Command, Pakistan stands to lose 8,00,000 people as primary casualties and another 12,00,000 as secondary casualties to such retaliation (Shankar 2018).

Lest the walkthrough appears speculative, a look at nuclear developments might strengthen the case on nuclear dangers. Commentary on the Rafale controversy has it that the change was possibly necessitated by India needing a nuclear weapons air-delivery system. The India-specific enhancements that have apparently shot up its cost and necessitating secrecy may have been to the nuclear avionics of the Rafale (Mitra-Iyer 2018). Alongside, India is set to purchase the S-400 Triumf air-defence weapons system from Russia at a steep cost of ₹40,000 crore (Hindu 2018). This system is expected to deploy a
protective screen alongside the Defence Research and Development Organisation’s endogenous and exogenous missile defence system around the national capital region. Expec­tation of protection against Pakistani retaliatory strikes will embolden aggression in nuclear decision-making. It provides a rationale for jettisoning self-deterrence from perceived vulnerabilities that constitute mutual deterrence.

India’s nuclear policy and decision-making structure is designed for democratic decision-making. But, the propensities in India’s higher governmental leadership today appear to be the opposite. Thus, the structure is unlikely to function as envisioned. The hollowing out of India’s institutions can, thus, exact a rather steep price. The very traits in the primary nuclear decision-maker that so enamoured the middle classes and voters at the last hustings show up now as liabilities. An extension for the ruling party at the helm in 2019 increases the likelihood that the unthinkable is at our doorstep.

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Updated On : 27th Aug, 2018

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