In his very first extended interview, in the run up to Army Day in January of 2017, General Bipin Rawat got off the mark by publicly dusting the army’s conventional war doctrine, its ‘proactive strategy’ dubbed as Cold Start. Earlier chiefs were rather coy, unwilling to own up the doctrine dating to 2004 lest it shows India as a state with an offensive intent. One chief even denied that any such doctrine exists.

On the sub-conventional doctrine front, recently, General Rawat has gone on to award Major Leetul Gogoi for quick thinking in use of a ‘human shield’ against stone throwers in the Kashmir Valley. This comes on the heels of the General threatening those impeding ongoing operations in Kashmir that they would be treated as ‘over-ground workers’ (OGW). Many in the Valley recall that at least some occupants of the 2000 plus unmarked graves across the Valley were ‘OGW’, mostly Jamaatis taken as the front of the Hizbul and the Lashkar by the security forces back in the nervous nineties.

When Jawaharlal Nehru sent the army to quell the Naga rebellion in the mid-fifties, he was keen that the army should earn the respect of the people. While General Rawat has made it amply clear that he prefers people to be ‘ afraid’ of the army.

The joint doctrine

A movement in India’s nuclear doctrine - how and when it plans to use nuclear weapons - has also been detected by avid analysts in their close reading of the joint doctrine, Joint Doctrine: Indian Armed Forces, released earlier in April this year.

While the joint doctrine supposedly has a shared armed forces pedigree, the army was likely its driving force. This is evident from the production values of the joint doctrine not being quite at par with the elegant doctrines turned out by the air force and the navy. The fingerprints of the army are visible, for instance, from the abstruse phraseology in it.

The joint doctrine in its reference to the nuclear doctrine described it as ‘credible deterrence’ instead of ‘credible minimum deterrence’. While to one analyst, the omission suggests ignorance on part of the drafters, this is too glaring to have been less than deliberate. The ‘minimum’ in the nuclear doctrine stood for deterrence-by-punishment based on holding a few counter-value targets of the nuclear adversary hostage to his good behaviour.

By eliminating ‘minimum’, analysts fear that India appears to be headed towards a warfighting nuclear doctrine. The two possible answers to Pakistani nuclear first use by employing tactical nuclear weapons, would be proportionate response and preemptive first strike. Both the responses require large numbers; thereby, making the term ‘minimum’ expendable. 

Doctrines under the UPA and NDA governments

The across-the-board doctrinal movement is not surprising.

India’s doctrine tryst dates to the earlier National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime. While the ‘draft’ nuclear doctrine was a product of the NDA’s earlier stint in power, coming out as it did on the heels of Pokhran II, the precursor to the army doctrine – The Indian Army: Fundamentals, Concepts, Doctrine (1998) - was also put out in the same year.

The NDA government put out official versions of both doctrines – nuclear and conventional – in the aftermath of the Operation Parakram episode (2001-2002) and both doctrines were a step ahead of their precursors. While the official nuclear doctrine of 2003 diluted the No First Use (NFU) pledge, the promise of ‘fighting the next war on enemy territory’ in the 1998 army publication was taken to its logical conclusion through the new Cold Start doctrine of 2004.

The sub-conventional doctrine of the army was quick on the heels. Taking advantage of the hiatus in Kashmir, coinciding with the early United Progressive Alliance (UPA I) years, the army wrote a doctrine for the first time in more than fifty years on how to fight sub-conventional operations (low-intensity conflicts). UPA’s liberal-realist national security establishment kept up the doctrinal makeover, firming up Cold Start through military exercises. In UPA II period, the government persisted down the same strategic path.

Fearing criticism from the strategic community - the self-styled guardians of national security in New Delhi with the current-day National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval being one of its leaders - the UPA I government was not able to clinch the peace feelers it had sent out to Pakistan and Kashmir.

Taking cue, Pakistan firmed up its response to Cold Start, both conventionally and at the nuclear level. The latter was through its display of tactical nuclear weapons. Kashmir, sensing India’s reluctance to persist down the political track involving three round tables and the three interlocutors, erupted periodically beginning in 2008.

The strategic community, amongst whom were many closet cultural nationalist and current day Modi supporters, closed ranks behind Ajit Doval in the later UPA II years. This further held up UPA II, as it didn't want to appear to be outflanked by the right wing for being ‘soft’ on Pakistan or in Kashmir. The final nail in the UPA coffin was the drafting of a press release in 2013 by Vivekananda International Foundation, a think tank then headed by Ajit Doval. In retrospect, the press release, with its hardline stance on Pakistan can be seen as precursor of a strategic manifesto.

While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was on the campaign trail, Doval – perhaps by then sounded out that he would get the coveted post of NSA - projected himself as holding a mild, ‘defensive offence’, perspective on the use of force. However, as a national security czar, Doval has since pursued the Doval doctrine, encapsulated in the phrase ‘You do one more Mumbai, and you lose Baluchistan’.

Fearing the worst, Pakistan in response to Cold Start upped the nuclear ante. This had India’s conventional war doctrine stumped. The then National Security Adviser under UPA II, Shivshankar Menon, writes of contemplating a turn to first strike as a consequence. And BJP’s manifesto had called for a nuclear doctrine review.

While the official nuclear doctrine has not been trifled with overtly, this explains the tacit dropping of ‘minimum’ from the phrase ‘minimum credible deterrence’ and the continuing threat to the NFU pledge in NDA II years. Anticipating the latter, Manmohan Singh had called for a global NFU convention to tie down the hands of his anticipated BJP successor.

While the actions on the nuclear level have been kept below the radar, muscle flexing on the conventional and sub-conventional level has been rather visible lately. ‘Surgical strikes’ have been witnessed on both the eastern and western fronts. It is back to fire assaults at the LoC and cordon and search sweeps in the Valley. The army chief reprised the ‘two and half front war’ trope, more than five years after it was last heard of. Some $200 billion are lined up for acquisitions over the coming decade. These are fallout of the Doval doctrine, which passes for the overarching strategic doctrine lending direction to India’s military doctrines.

The UPA II government saw India move from offensive deterrence to offensive, under hyper nationalist and cultural nationalist pressure. Under the present dispensation, India’s strategic doctrine has moved towards what can be called “compellence”. Military doctrines, keeping pace, consequently have had to become more aggressive.

The dangers are in the inter-linkages between the levels of the conflict spectrum: nuclear-conventional-sub-conventional. With more ‘surgical strikes’ on the cards, the buffer between sub-conventional and the conventional level has been done away with. Pakistan had early on whittled the divide between the conventional and nuclear levels. In absence of any distinction between the levels, there is a short fuse to conflict and conflict is set to escalate in short order.

The problem with compellence – what Doval’s doctrine advocates - is that the onus of throwing in the towel is with the target, Pakistan. India appears to be relying on Pakistan’s strategic good sense in knowing when to play ball.  Though General Rawat has signaled as much to Pakistan (‘If you (Pakistan) accept peace, we will go along’), alongside he noted that there is a ‘dirty war’ on in Kashmir.

Clearly, Pakistan is unfazed. Compellence does not seem to be working. This might force India to tweak compellence further. When it does, it would likely find - at some cost to itself - that the doctrinal movement has not made India any safer.