The focus of the country during Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif’s quadruple bypass was obviously on his survival, and subsequent recovery, and not just among his supporters, but also those of his opponents who felt that the country could not afford the loss of an experienced leader, especially not after the PPP lost its leader, in Benazir Bhutto, as recently as 2007, by assassination. However, with him going under the knife just three days after Yaum-i-Takbir, there must be focus on the arrangements for the custody of the nuclear weapon. This is one of the theoretical possibilities that should be provided for in a country with a nuclear weapon: what happens when the person with launch responsibility becomes temporarily unavailable?

The most prominent, and best-known, example is that of the US President. He is at all times accompanied by a military aide, usually a one-star officer, who has locked to his wrist the nuclear ‘football’, a briefcase containing the launch codes for a launch of nuclear weapons. The USSR had a similar arrangement, as does Russia today. The UK, France and China have similar arrangements. It is thus to be assumed that Pakistan and India do too. Clearly, because of this nuclear dimension, it becomes essential for the person who can launch those nuclear weapons to be available for this, and to have a designated successor, as well as someone who can take over in time of emergency on an acting basis.

Again, the US President is more or less perfect for this job, probably because the 18th century drafters of the US Constitution were trying to find an elected monarch, with checks on his power. As such, the President had a clearly designated successor, the Vice-President, long before there was any nuclear need. Indeed, since the coming of nuclear weapons, only one Vice-President (Lyndon B. Johnson) has succeeded a President who has just died. The only time a President has designated an acting President has been when Ronald Reagan designated his Vice-President, George P. Bush, who went on to succeed him, to act as president while he was under anesthesia during surgery. Earlier, though, Richard Nixon filled a vacancy in the office, by appointing Gerald R. Ford after Spiro T. Agnew resigned. Previously, there had been vacancies which had remained unfilled, but in a non-nuclear era. Nixon resigned, Ford became President, and promptly nominated Nelson Rockefeller to the post. It is not that there will be no President failing the existing president and vice-president, the Constitution lays down the succession, to the Speaker of the House, and then the members of the Cabinet, with their inter se seniority determined by an Act of Congress. As the Reagan example showed, what had to be done was the President issuing an authorization, followed by his issuing a revocation of that authorization.

However, Pakistan has a prime ministerial system of government, and there is no provision for an acting PM. The only provision, which allowed a Senior Minister to be appointed and to act as PM if the incumbent actually died, has been repealed. Therefore, if there is a sudden vacancy in office, the method to fill it involves an election by the National Assembly. If a session has to be summoned, the process will take days. What to do if the vacancy is temporary?

Mian Nawaz will not just be incapacitated by the surgery, but will experience reduced capacity after it. He will be absent not just for the presentation of the budget, but also for the pre-budget Cabinet meeting, which took place on Monday. That was very early; normally it is held just before the Budget presentation, at which Cabinet approval is obtained, being held so late to maintain Budget secrecy.

However, though the Budget seemed to present the main difficulty, the ‘football’ is the main issue. If Mian Nawaz cannot designate a successor, then maybe he doesn’t have the ability to launch the weapons in the first place. Maybe someone else does: the COAS. That might go down well with the cohorts who call for him to impose martial law, but that does not fit either the legal position, or the COAS’s position in the National Command Authority. There are always specific organs which decide on nuclear launch. In the USA, it is the National Security Council, in Russia, China and North Korea the Military Commission, and in India and Pakistan, the Nuclear and National Command Authorit. In India, the NCA consists of a Political Council and Executive Council, the former (consisting of ministers) deciding on the use of nuclear weapons. In Pakistan, the NCA consists of the PM and the Foreign, Interior, Defence, Finance and Science Ministers, the three service chiefs, the chairman joint chiefs, the commander marines (a vice-admiral) and the DG of the Strategic Plans Division (a lieutenant-general). Decisions are by voting, with each member having a vote. Some of the utility has been diluted, with the PM also holding the Foreign portfolio.

One disadvantage of a prime ministerial system is that it is virtually impossible to designate fixed office. However, in the Pakistan case, there is the expected military bristling if a civilian is responsible for any aspect of defence policy (with foreign policy assumed an adjunct). The COAS does have a clearly designated acting officer: the most senior corps commander, who actually leaves his corps HQ if the COAS so much as goes out of the country (let alone resign or die), and goes to GHQ to take command.

Though the former Chief Justice of Pakistan, Mr Justice (retd) Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, has pinpointed the budget as liable to future difficulties in the event of the absence of a Prime Minister, the real problem is the control of the nuclear weapon. The danger is not so much the need of a substitute to carry out a first strike, as that of a need to carry out a response. The idea of striking the opponent’s capital is important enough to get its own name: a ‘decapitation strike.’ That means one in which the strike leaves the opponent without its head. However, if that head goes under anesthesia, then the decapitation strike is already achieved.

Lines of succession are usually avoided. The difficulties that monarchs have had with heirs apparent are testimony to this, and thus may well be dispensed with by the wise ruler. However, the ruler of a nuclear power cannot leave such a gap. Even in the presence of a designated successor, there will be enough confusion in the capital to make it tempting to a potential enemy to use its nuclear weapon against Pakistan. It must not be forgotten that even a designated alternate will find it very difficult to order a launch, because though fully empowered, no one (least of all the real holder of the office) expects him to actually exercise those powers.

Therefore, though the calls for Mian Nawaz to resign and put someone in place might well be politically motivated, they do cover a genuine concern. The alternative is to rely on Narendra Modi’s forbearance. Only the disinclination to rouse US ire will stop him.