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Septmeber 9, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend Amberish K Diwanji

What if Delhi is nuked?

Indian strategists have always argued that in any battle with Pakistan, India's greatest advantage is its incredible depth. Pakistan, on the other hand, clearly lacks depth, being a much smaller country whose east-west width is barely 1,000 kilometres in the north, where the most populous state of Punjab is located (it is more in the south). Moreover, Karachi is only a few hundred miles from India's border on the west. Lahore and capital Islamabad too are very close.

India is better off: while Delhi and Bombay are still within reach of Pakistani aircraft should they launch a surprise attack, major cities (industrial and commercial) such as Madras, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Calcutta, Kanpur and Guwahati are too far away to be really threatened. They can, of course, be reached, but being far away, defences can be activated.

The difficulty is that the political capital Delhi, and the financial capital Bombay, are within striking distance from Pakistani airfields or missile silos. And the real problem is Delhi. What if Delhi is nuked? Should it be bombed suddenly (a Pakistani missile will take 10 minutes to hit Delhi, too little time to perhaps even escape into an underground bunker), wiping out India's entire top leadership in every field, then what happens?

Let us assume the worst. A nuke attack on New Delhi when Parliament is in session. Such an attack will wipe out Rashtrapati Bhavan (the President's office and residence), Parliament (leaders of various political parties), South Block (the prime minister's office and ministries of defence and external affairs), North Block (ministries of finance and home), most other ministries and residences of top ministers, top political parties and their leaders, the headquarters of the army, navy, and air force along with the residences of the chiefs of army, navy, and air force staffs, the Supreme Court, the residence/office of the vice-president of India, and offices/residences of India's top bureaucrat and diplomats (the Cabinet secretary, the foreign secretary, and others).

In fact, the very establishment of India.

The Constitution clearly states that in the absence of the President, the vice-president shall officiate, to be followed by the Chief Justice of India or other justices in order of seniority. None might survive a surprise attack. The political leadership will be wiped out, the only hope is that some senior minister is on a tour or not in Delhi, and has survived (remember, when Parliament is in session, ministers are expected to be present to answer questions). The military top brass is gone, but here there is hope, because the next rung are invariably out of Delhi, in charge of the various operational commands. Ditto the bureaucratic establishment, though here, many of the second rung are usually in Delhi.

The military is preparing a nuclear blueprint to ensure a second-strike capability even if India's top leadership is destroyed, by passing on command to the second-rung brass who will then retaliate. While that will ensure revenge, the question is what happens to the country? Who will govern? Will it be the military (and who among them -- what if they breakout into a fight)? In fact, there will be a scramble for power precisely at the time when the country needs calm and great leadership to ensure stability during what will easily be its worst hour.

India's history has repeatedly shown that its mighty empires invariably broke up whenever there was no second hierarchy of command, when the death of a king plunged the kingdom into factions fighting for power. It is for this reason, and given the average Indian's fractious nature, that a second line in all fields must be established. India must ensure that at all times, and under all circumstances, there are available persons in each field to take charge of the country -- political, bureaucratic, military. And political is important, since they are the ones the people identify the most with.

One way of doing this is to decentralise Delhi. Move out many of the country's top offices and institutions to other cities all over the country. In today's world, we don't need everything in one city -- that made sense in the olden days when defence was synonymous with armies marching across and so the idea was to defend one city. But in the nuclear age, to prevent total annihilation, let the government and institutions be spread out over this vast country, so that no enemy (external or even internal) can ever destroy them all at one go.

For instance, why should the President and prime minister stay in the same city, next to each other (so close that a surprise conventional or even a terrorist attack could be dangerous for both). Why can't they be in separate cities so that even if one is killed, the other is not? The prime minister is supposed to meet the President once a week: in today's world of supersonic jets, that hardly needs them both in the same city (it did when New Delhi was built in the 1920s). Similarly, why is the vice-president staying in Delhi? He (or she) could take up residence in another corner of the country. Ditto the Supreme Court (or at least benches of it should be established in the north-east and south). Most important, should not Parliament converge in another city? This will ensure that India's executive and legislative capitals are different.

There is another aspect to all this. A capital in Delhi appears too remote from many parts of India, especially the south and north-east. In fact, it can be validly asked if Delhi is the ideal location for India's capital (but this topic is worthy of another article which I hope to write later, right now it is just a query), being too north and west? By moving key institutions out to the more remote regions, the people's sense of belonging to India can only grow. Thus, such a move will also strengthen the fabric of Indian nationhood.

To really take advantage of our strategic depth (and this also applies to threats from China or from the oceans or from anywhere else), let us spread out our key institutions, those institutions that make us India, and do so such that other parts of India too can be feel closer to the powers and institutions. For instance, as a suggestion, the President, vice-president, Parliament, the three chiefs of staff, and the Supreme Court could easily move to other cities, and each to different ones, not just one other city. Let the prime minister and the Cabinet minsters, along with their offices remain in Delhi, since building offices and residential quarters for all of them will be prohibitively expensive. And in moving them, they could be sent, first, to the more backward regions of North-East (and not just to Guwahati), and also the other regions of South, East, Central, and the West.

Of course, the modalities and finer details need to be worked out carefully, but the principle remains that it is too dangerous to concentrate too much in one small region. Too dangerous for India, from external, and internal, threats.

While a similar argument can be made for Bombay, luckily the scenario is changing with market reforms. Other cities are now booming (Madras, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Pune, and even the eastern regions is expected to pick up) and thus Bombay's relative share of contribution is likely to see a decline.

Amberish K Diwanji

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