The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s political management of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s hospitalization for a bypass surgery was decidedly shoddy. Beyond juggling timetables and finding one or the other leader to replace the Prime Minister at ceremonial functions, it was evident that national leadership was held hostage to the Congress party’s internal dynamics. Missing was the degree of professionalism and transparency in leadership that is expected for a nuclear power. Consider.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Up until the late 1980s, the question of “who is in charge” when the prime minister is indisposed or otherwise incapable of carrying out his duties was of academic interest. In practice, it didn’t matter: The business of government would continue because the cabinet would remain intact, the civil service permanent and the ruling party’s parliamentary majority unchanged. But with India’s nuclear weapons capability becoming operational in the last years of that decade, the question of “who is in charge” was no longer pedantic. Because the nuclear arsenal is unquestionably under civilian control, the question of succession became material for India’s national security.
That question took on an entirely higher level of importance after India decided to make its nuclear weapons capability explicit in May 1998. Now, those with historical knowledge of the country’s nuclear weapons programme hold that there has always been a clear—if secret—process governing the command and control of the nuclear arsenal, with the metaphorical red button unambiguously in the hands of the prime minister of the day. But after the formal induction of nuclear weapons and the announcement of the doctrine pertaining to their use, greater transparency on their governance was in order.
The need to institutionalize command and control of the nuclear weapons came to the fore in October 2000, when prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee underwent his first knee surgery in Mumbai. On that occasion, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government moved a key part of the Prime Minister’s Office to Mumbai; but like almost all of his predecessors, Vajpayee did not officially designate one of his cabinet colleagues to act in his stead. It was announced that the cabinet committee on security (CCS)—then consisting of the home, external affairs, defence and finance ministers, and the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission—would take all decisions relating to national security. Notwithstanding these arrangements, Vajpayee retained control of the red button during the entire period of his hospitalization and convalescence. It is conceivable that the issue of nuclear command was one factor that determined Vajpayee’s decision not to appoint a senior colleague, presumably Lal Krishna Advani, as acting prime minister.
Subsequently, in January 2003, CCS institutionalized the governance of nuclear command and control by setting up the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA). NCA has a political council chaired by the prime minister that is the final authority on the use of nuclear weapons. It is advised by an executive council, headed by the national security adviser and consists of top bureaucrats. NCA’s directives are carried out by the Strategic Forces Command, headed by a general officer from the Armed Forces. While the exact composition of the political council has not been made public, it has been suggested that during the NDA government’s term in office, it was “in essence” the same as CCS. While announcing details about NCA, CCS attempted to strike a balance between transparency—assuring the world of civilian primacy and public accountability; and secrecy—protecting alternative chains of command and, thereby, strengthening nuclear deterrence.
After it took office in May 2004, the UPA government continued with these institutional arrangements. However, when Singh was hospitalized, it did not disclose the line of nuclear succession. The traditional Congress party organizational malaise was allowed to cloud the transparency required for effective governance of nuclear weapons.
First, India can no longer afford debates on whether or not it needs to define a line of succession for the political executive. Operational nuclear weapons and the consequent need for rapid, constitutionally legitimate and strategically sound decision making urgently call for it. In fact, the debate should move on to how to establish chains of constitutional and nuclear succession that best fit India’s political institutions and strategic situation. The leadership and line of succession of NCA’s political council should be unambiguous and transparent at all times. It must be institutional—merely appointing an acting chairman before the prime minister goes to hospital is a rather irresponsible way of going about it. Those in the line of succession must be briefed regularly and participate in periodic drills simulating various scenarios.
Second, the presence of at least five cabinet ministers in the political council also ensures that the most important decisions relating to the employment of nuclear weapons are carefully deliberated by elected and accountable individuals. The?benefits of having such an institutional check are undermined if some individuals hold multiple portfolios. When Singh went to the hospital, it automatically resulted in the absence of two members of the political council, because he also held the finance portfolio. If assigning multiple portfolios to a minister was of questionable wisdom earlier, the requirements of nuclear governance effectively rule it out.
The nuclear factor thus calls for both the declaration of a line of succession as well as ensuring that key cabinet portfolios are entrusted to separate individuals. It renders unacceptable practices that have either become norms or are compulsions of coalition politics. Parties preparing for the coming general election, therefore, would do well to go beyond announcing their prime ministerial candidates. They should announce their leadership succession strategy and the line-up for key cabinet positions.
Nitin Pai is editor of Pragati—The Indian National Interest Review, a publication on strategic affairs, public policy and governance. Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org