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Passing the nuclear baton from Manmohan Singh to Narendra Modi

Saturday, 24 May 2014 - 6:00am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

On Monday, May 26, India will have a new Prime Minister. The charismatic, larger-than-life Narendra (bhai) Modi will succeed the reticent and soft-spoken Dr Manmohan Singh. A grave and onerous responsibility will devolve on the new PM and along with the numerous issues whose stewardship will need the incumbent's personal attention, there is none more sensitive and opaque than the nuclear weapon capability of India.

In short, the nuclear baton will pass from Singh to Modi. But when and how institutional acumen is transferred is part of the opacity that envelops this strategic capability that India acquired in May 1998 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the first BJP Prime Minister of India, took the bold decision that he did.

Given the harsh US-led sanctions imposed on India after the May 1974 peaceful nuclear explosion (PNE) which was carried out with Indira Gandhi at the helm, the nuclear issue in India has perforce been a cloistered domain. The keepers of this secretive pursuit were a chosen few scientists and civil servants — no written records were kept — and the lighter vein quip is that the oral narrative was conducted in chaste Tamil, which is why the Americans never got to know in May 1998!

For students of India's higher defence management, nuclear capability ranks at the highest rung and much of the understanding of how this capability has been nurtured and progressively made credible is based on conjecture, inference and some anecdotal accounts that are selectively shared. And accidental proximity with some of the key players allows one to make a few broad observations that acquire a certain relevance in the current transition.

India's nuclear capability was nurtured assiduously by successive PMs who followed Indira Gandhi, particularly her son Rajiv and the matter acquired urgency on the Narasimha Rao watch in the mid 1990s. The Cold War had ended in the most unexpected manner in December 1991, the Soviet Union became 'former' and following France and China joining the NPT (Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty) in 1992, global pressure was mounting on India to cap-roll back and eliminate its nascent nuclear capability.

The inscrutable Rao planned to carry out a nuclear test even as India was encouraged to co-sponsor the CTBT (comprehensive test ban treaty) at the UN along with the US. The unstated logic was if India carried out a nuclear test successfully before the CTBT came into force, it would be in a better position apropos its security interests which had been muddied by the covert China-Pakistan nuclear weapon and missile cooperation. However, the Rao initiative was thwarted by the US and India continued to occupy the nuclear twilight zone and kept its options open.

Then followed the Vajpayee decision to 'cross the Rubicon' in May 1998 and as part of the higher defence matrix, the post of a National Security Adviser (NSA) was created. A veteran diplomat and Vajpayee confidante, the late Brajesh Mishra, also the Principal Secretary to the PM, became India's first NSA. Given the enormity of what India had embarked upon, it was deemed necessary that the same individual wear two hats. This was a prudent decision and in this period, the Vajpayee government released a nuclear doctrine based on no-first-use (NFU) and also created the Strategic Forces Command. Evidently, the Vajpayee-Mishra team learnt on the job — about how the political apex in a democracy like India is to manage the apocalyptic nuclear weapon, rightly described as WMD (weapon of mass destruction).

How did the poet-turned-PM Vajpayee prepare for this onerous sui generis task? After all, the NFU also meant India had to deter a first strike by an adversary with zero-error margin. Here there is some public domain information to suggest that when Vajpayee became the PM — as Modi will soon become — he consulted his predecessor, the reticent Rao, who by then had been ostracised by the Congress. However, given the texture of the personal relationship between these two leaders (Vajpayee was accused by his detractors of being Nehruvian and Rao was castigated for being a secret 'parivar' sympathiser), it turned out that there was a quiet passing of the baton and acumen. One PM shared with his successor whatever was deemed appropriate.

The oral history of that period indicates that on May 16, 1996, when Vajpayee assumed office — albeit for a fortnight — he had the benefit of a personal briefing on the nuclear issue from Rao. How useful and how detailed, one can only conjecture. The next transition of PM of significance was post May 1998, when India had become a nuclear weapon power.

By then the PM had an NSA to advise him and a more formal command and control structure had been put in place by the Vajpayee government. On May 19, 2004, Vajpayee stepped down and was succeeded by Singh. Did the latter receive sage counsel on the nuclear issue along with the baton from his illustrious predecessor? One does not know and at this stage it is only the esteemed Singh who can shed light on this matter. However, as observers of the political dynamic in Delhi, one can make a reasonable assumption that the Rao-Vajpayee relationship was very different from that of Vajpayee-Singh.

How does the transition take place at the next rung? An attempt at seeking to glean some insight from the NSA at the time was deflected. As part of this author's study of higher defence management, I had queried Mishra and the context was the 1962 China War. It is well-known that Krishna Menon, the defence minster at the time, had directed that there be no written record of discussions about the conduct of the war when he was in the Chair. My question was about the current practice with specific reference to the nuclear issue. The matter was elided with the faintest smile and the response was: "Mani knew more than me", the reference being to the late JN Dixit who succeeded Mishra as NSA

When Modi is sworn in, the metaphorical 'football' (which contains the nuclear button) will be part of the crown of thorns that adorns the PM's halo. One hopes that the sharing of the acumen that is part of the PM-NSA combine will be normative and not marred by party animosities. The PMO twitter handle transition does not augur well.

The author is former Director, IDSA and Member-Secretary, PM's Task Force on 'Global Security Developments'

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