Watchdog Needed

After decades of indecision, the Indian political leadership has come to favour realism over idealism in answering the ethical question: Should India weaponise at all? Some have subsequently assumed that this initial decision accounts for all eventualities thus failing to recognise that a decision to weaponise is textured by a variety of continuing choices. It depends on the type of weaponisation India chooses to undertake and what this entails.

For example, the draft report of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) — as a template of intention — projects a maximalist Indian deterrent. Of course it could be argued that the NSAB is a sounding board rather the architect of India’s nuclear project in which case we, in fact, do not know what the government of India’s intentions truly are. Kanti Bajpai has noted that the NSAB has produced …a cross between a deterrence textbook and a wish-list of what an ideal deterrent capability should be rather than a realistic framework of what India can afford”. Then, can one assume that the government will actually consider the draft report seriously? The implications of the discrepancy between intentions and present capabilities are two-fold: first, India will have to undertake massive programmes of investment to create orthodox deterrent capability; and second, the choice of programmes and the costs they entail will bear considerably on the economic and human security that underlies a more comprehensive measure of national security.

Will the government abide by the draft report? If it does not, then the NSAB has produced a set of guidelines that are essentially unrealistic: this is a bad start for a critical institution. Maybe the NSAB has actually produced useful guidelines but these have not been disclosed — if so, then why release the draft report at all? Ultimately then we have a wide margin to consider: the government is going to do something that lies between nothing and everything that deterrence requires.

Why should this confusion be a source of concern for us? Principally, in an era of fiscal deficit, we must be promised that reductions in food subsidies are not a consequence of wasted expenditure elsewhere. Moreover who prioritises guns over butter? Opinion polls suggest that people consider education, poverty reduction and population control to be more important. Will it be empty stomachs and nuclear umbrellas? If it is somewhere in between — then who decides and how? Most importantly — how do the people get a chance to influence the outcome? Failing this, Amitabh Mattoo will be proved correct in describing the nuclear decision-making process as scientific and political czarism”.

Secrecy marks the limit of public information, accountability and knowledge and as such is a boundary-producing mechanism. Essentially the principles of democracy require that what should be done is what is decided by the sovereign people. In practice, however, nuclear decisions can hide from democracy under the veil of national security and a leap of faith instead requires for elected and responsible officials to act in the best interests of the people, inadvertently creating a principal-agent problem. A principal-agent problem is one where the absence of perfectly available information — in this case due to secrecy — results in the agent having an informational advantage over the principal who has delegated work to him.

Solutions to this problem require information revelation mechanisms that allow for accountability to be exercised. Preventing this is the fundamental structural disadvantage that hampers civil society: elites as privileged groups have the ability to manipulate the political agenda through the institutions of the state while dispersing costs over the latent polity. This is an organisational dilemma: rational citizens are unlikely to be willing to bear the costs of searching for the information required to hold governments accountable because we know that others will be able to free ride on our efforts. Meanwhile the substantially fewer immediate beneficiaries will have an easier time, forming a coalition of vested interests on a you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” basis.

Adding to this there remains the concern that the desire to ensure accountability is weakening. Civil society requires an optimum mix of parochial and civic values that allow for a virtuous civic capacity sufficient to keep the government on its toes. However, parochial caste/regional/religious interests result in the division of civil society into groups that increasingly focus upon holding their own representatives accountable for the provision of narrower benefit: I will demand that my MP campaign for the provision of this or that reservation or subsidy that affects me directly rather than seek to influence national issues that benefit everybody. The problem is that public interest is a public good: Everybody benefits from my effort while I bear all the costs. Consequently, in a manner reminiscent of the Prisoners’ Dilemma game — all except altruists, will defect and not seek accountability, thus leaving us collectively worse-off. The politics of patronage privatises interests and this is likely to severely undermine the building of coalitions in civil society on issues of secular public interest.

This article seeks to highlight two concerns: our lack of clear information about the weaponisation process on the one hand and the structural issues that complicate our attempts at enforcing accountability on the other. Dealing with this is important because insofar as political power and influence continues to be shaped by the military might of states, nuclear weapons as an emblem of force shall not disappear. As Lawrence Freedman states, Force becomes useless only when everyone agrees it is”. The hypocrisy of the established nuclear powers over de-weaponisation shows that there are substantial benefits from weaponisation, and this will continue to provide Indian planners with added impetus. Nevertheless in an attempt to clarify that India should weaponise only when this protects the interests of the polity, rather than an interest group, we must continue to question the claim that any or every unspecified form of weaponisation will enhance India’s security. Probity then becomes essential, as motives cannot be readily inferred from decisions because several motives can be served by the same decision. Meanwhile, we must remain vigilant against enemies both within and without.

(The author is this year’s Oxford topper. This article is based on his undergraduate thesis Abandoning Ahimsa: Should India Weaponise Its Nuclear Technology that won the Gibbs Prize for Best Thesis of the Year.)