Springtime, a period of colourful blossoms, fresh leaves and outdoor festivals, was spent by all Indians in a state of national lockdown this year. In dealing with the challenge thrown up by Covid-19, India chose social distancing through an unprecedented countrywide shutdown. While this decision has nothing to do with nuclear weapons, interestingly enough, it signals something about the country’s nuclear strategy. Two aspects particularly stand out: the credibility of its nuclear deterrence; and, the wisdom of its nuclear strategy.
Credibility of nuclear deterrence rests on a tripod. It comprises the knowledge of the presence of nuclear weapons, existence of requisite command and control structures, and exhibition of resolve to use the capability. Many within the country and outside have often raised doubts about the third leg of this tripod, questioning India’s ability to take difficult decisions. This has particularly been suggested in the context of Pakistan’s projection of a threat to use low-yield nuclear weapons in the battlefield.
In such circumstances, it is presumed that the loss to life and property would be small and mostly limited to military personnel and assets, and India would refrain from nuclear retaliation.
After the rather difficult decision that the Prime Minister took on the night of 24 March 2020 to order a complete nation-wide lockdown, such presumptions might need a rethink. The call to shut down an entire nation of India’s size and population for three weeks, extended subsequently by another 19 days, could not have been an easy one. Besides, it had to be taken amidst a thick fog of uncertainty and without knowing whether it would turn out right or not. The only thing evident was that it would involve a serious disruption of lives, millions of which were already living on the edge, in a developing country.
The hard choice demonstrated the resolve of the leadership. Even more importantly, as 36, often otherwise fractious provincial administrations, and over 1.3 billion diverse and argumentative Indians have largely moved collectively since then, indicates a national resolve. Political stability, when it rests on true democratic pillars, allows a nation to make and sustain difficult decisions with far greater public legitimacy than in more fragile, non-democratic states. Therefore, none of India’s adversaries should be tempted towards first nuclear use by doubting its resolve to undertake nuclear retaliation.
Another factor that adds to the credibility of nuclear deterrence, as highlighted by India’s handling of the current crisis, is the inherent strength of its economy and aspirational human resources. Even as the country bleeds while handling the health emergency, it has still taken upon itself the additional burden of grinding the economy to a halt. This is possible only when the country has faith in its socio-economic resilience and scientific and technological strength to get back on its feet. Additionally, the entrepreneurial spirit has risen to meet the challenges.
The decision to impose the lockdown, therefore, gives an indication of the innate capacity and forbearance of a young nation with ancient roots to withstand difficult times. None of India’s adversaries must believe that the fear of economic pain would stop India from nuclear retaliation. The strategic depth offered by its size, economic resilience, human resource potential and democratic polity collectively undergird the strength to take tough calls.
Meanwhile, at a more philosophical level, the current situation brings out the inherent wisdom in India’s approach towards nuclear weapons and the manner in which it pursues nuclear deterrence. India’s nuclear doctrine is premised on the understanding that such weapons have a limited utility to safeguard the nation against nuclear blackmail or coercion. Therefore, India subscribes to a strategy of nuclear retaliation only, rather than believing in the first use of nuclear weapons. This allows India to stay with the idea of credible minimum deterrence and away from overinvesting in capabilities that may be needed for nuclear war-fighting such as weapons for battlefield use, delivery systems for counter-force targeting, or active defences for damage limitation.
The novel coronavirus that rages across the globe has shown up the limitations of isolationist and hyper-nationalist strategies in pursuit of a chimera of security. As political leaders experience a sense of vulnerability from a shared risk, this appears to be a good time to draw their attention to the folly of racing to build large nuclear arsenals and war-fighting capabilities to conduct so-called limited nuclear wars. Any crisis involving nuclear weapons would be a humanitarian disaster beyond imagination. The raging pandemic has provided us with some sense of what such disasters entail in terms of lives lost, economies wrecked, livelihoods destroyed and societies devastated. A nuclear disaster would additionally involve property losses in blasts and fires, related ecological consequences, and long-lasting radioactivity effects.
Till such time as nations are ready to universally eliminate these weapons, nations would do well to remember that nuclear weapons have a limited deterrent role and small arsenals can perform the task of deterrence effectively. India’s nuclear strategy anchored in minimalism and no first use holds useful lessons for all. National resources, of India and others, would be better spent on human security and building habits of cooperation.