The latest kerfuffle on the nuclear front has been stirred up by comments made last month by a Harvard faculty member of Indian origin at a conference at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC. He opined that India has shifted or is shifting its nuclear doctrine from a retaliatory one to a one based on first-strike, which could well be in a preemptive mode. This means that India might well abandon no first-use, either soon as part of this shift or in face of provocation.

The Harvard academic derives this intent from Choices, a book by the last national security adviser Shivshankar Menon, and buttressed by his perusal of the writings of Lt Gen B.S. Nagal, former custodian of India’s strategic weapons and currently head of the Indian army funded think tank, Center for Land Warfare Studies.

While Menon refers to the possibility of a disarming first strike - aiming to take out Pakistan’s nuclear capability - as a response to Pakistani nuclear use, for his part, Nagal, makes the following case:

…planning is needed to destroy a large number of counter-value targets to include population centers, industrial complexes and important infrastructure, and available counter-force targets as well. The retaliatory strikes must cause destruction to the extent that recovery and reconstruction is long-drawn and costly, incapacitating the population, regressing the economy, defeating the military, and decimating the political leadership that took the call to go to war (p. 11).

Anticipating the shift, a back of the envelop calculation done in this column two years back had it that at least 50 weapons would require to be dropped for setting back Pakistan’s retaliatory capability.

A JNU professor has it that it requires 60 weapons. Nagal, for his part wants to ‘send it back to the stone age’ (to quote the US Assistant Secretary of State threat to Musharraf while persuading him to join Bush’s global war on terror). Adding for this, the overall tally can go up by a third, making a total of about 80 warheads.

Presuming Pakistan manages to sneak in some of its own nuclear attacks timely and, later, its scattered nuclear forces fire off any remaining warheads in India’s direction, we could add some 20 nuclear strikes, not all of which will be impacting India since the early nuclear use by Pakistan might be in form of tactical nuclear weapons on its own territory against advancing Indian military columns. There would also be some knock-on detonations of Pakistani nuclear weapons subject to Indian strikes. Thus, we have a figure of about a 120 detonations, of which about a tenth could well be in India.

Though India would in this case receive strikes in the lower double digits, these might be tellingly directed at India’s nerve centers. The belief in India is that its ballistic missile defences over the likely Pakistani targets can preserve these from much damage. However, some skeptics believe that the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) always over promises.

Early in this decade, Pakistan set up the Naval Strategic Command and half a decade on it is learnt to be creating a sea based deterrent. Unlike India’s undersea deterrent which is nuclear powered, Pakistan is relying on diesel electric submarines modified for the purpose. Thus a few warheads of such payloads managing to reach India should be added. These might be more precise strikes.

A rough estimate is that India can expect up to 10 nuclear incoming strikes from the Arabian Sea. Assuming DRDO manages to down 5 of these, an overall 15 impacts would be the price to pay for ‘wiping Pakistan off the map’ in George Fernandes’ unforgettable phrase.

Nagal perhaps anticipating the criticism he would receive for his recipe of strikes takes care to add, ‘In conducting retaliatory strikes, care must be taken to avoid destruction of the environment and damage due to radioactive fallout that will have an effect on the country, the region, and the world.’ Airbursts are one way of taking care of this.

Giving Nagal his due, assuming that two thirds of India’s strikes are airburst, about 25-30 Indian strikes will raise a dust, as would the 15 Pakistani bombs that manage to get through. Thus, we have a figure of about 45 mushroom clouds in the subcontinent, at least some of which would be in urban settings.

It is possible that given the dispensation currently in power in Delhi, there would be no compunction in eliminating Pakistan. Since the nuclear aftermath would provide an opportunity for gaining a firm grip over India, ostensibly to prevent chaos, there are incentives for a regime pre-disposed towards an authoritarian system.

Given this propensity, strategists would be well advised to think one-up. By selling first-strike as a doable proposition, they may end up with a political decision maker - with a self-belief in being a strong man and decisive - grasping the nettle.

How will this turn out?

At a DRDO function on weaponry for chemical and biological warfare, the then defence minister, Parrikar, claimed implausibly that chemical weapons had been used in Afghanistan. The army chief said that these could be used against Indian forces. We know India’s no first-use does not hold against a chemical attack, which leaves nuclear retaliation as the only option. Further, we are now told that India is moving towards a preemptive first-strike doctrine.

What does putting the two propositions together tell us? Ensuring that the 15 retaliatory warheads do not come India’s way requires flawless damage-limitation strikes. This is best done by seizing the initiative rather than leaving it to the adversary to provoke.

India could well manufacture a nuclear trigger in the form of a chemical attack on its forces – a’la Tongking Bay incident that brought the US directly into the Vietnam war. Recently in Syria, purported chemical weapons used by the regime led to the US missile strikes. Similarly, attribution of chemical attacks to Pakistan could open it up for pre-emptive nuclear retribution, with information warfare later cluttering the truth.

Clearly, South Asia is closer to a nuclear conflict than strategists care to let on. They need to take nuclear scaremongering more seriously, and so must the prospective nuclear decision makers.

Given all this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi should be apprised of the possible dangers.

Firstly, Modi would be wise to query the numbers. He should double the numbers of Pakistani warheads credited here as striking India’s solar plexus. It would take considerably more chutzpah than he needed to face the critics of demonetization.

Secondly, he could be arraigned for genocide, if not in front of the International Criminal Court – which India has in anticipation taken care not to sign up to – but in innovative global criminal tribunals set up for accountability.

Thirdly, even if Pakistan is history, the saffronites’ ‘Muslim problem’ would not have gone away. Not only would Pakistani refugees inundate the border-states but they would be a conduit for a jihadi, hybrid war.

In this nuclear era, what should matter to the decision maker is not what we can do to the  enemy but what the enemy could do to us.