Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has set the tongues wagging afresh in the country’s strategic establishment with his remark on August 16 that while New Delhi remains “firmly committed” to the doctrine of no first use of nuclear weapons this long-standing posture may not have been cast in stone and it may change to suit emerging circumstances.
“Pokhran is the area which witnessed Atalji’s firm resolve to make India a nuclear power and yet remain firmly committed to the doctrine of ‘No First Use’. India has strictly adhered to this doctrine. What happens in future depends on the circumstances,” Rajnath tweeted. The significance of the timing and venue of his comments are not lost on anyone familiar with the Indian nuclear deterrence doctrine first unveiled in 1999 soon after the country under the leadership of the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had conducted the second test of nuclear devices below the sand dunes of the Pokharan desert of Rajasthan in May that year. Known for almost always making careful statements using restrained diction, Rajnath visited the nuclear testing site of 1998 in Pokharan to commemorate Vajpayee’s first death anniversary on August 16.
There is no reason to assess the Defence Minister’s remark as “off-the-cough” because it did not come in the heat of question-answer during a media interaction. Surely, it was well thought-out before he took to the micro-blogging site. Surely, it was not just his personal view but reflected the thinking not only in a section of India’s strategic circle but also within the Bharatiya Janata Party whose manifesto for the 2014 parliamentary elections made it clear that “it is going to revise and update” India’s nuclear doctrine including no first use policy.”
Pakistan has always raised the spectre of nuclear blackmail
in conjunction with its promotion of cross-border terrorism.
This is a matter of serious concern to India.
There are also reports that Pakistan
has developed tactical battlefield weapon
to counter India’s no first use policy.
Rajnath’s remark may be the proverbial straw in the wind
The 1998 nuclear tests were a landmark phase in the evolution of India’s nuclear weapons policy and was on hindsight one of the best things to have happened as far as its thinking on becoming a strategic power is concerned. The no first use stand was enunciated by the Vajpayee government as part of a strategy to soften up the initial harsh reaction from a majority of the international community to the 1998 tests and to help integrate India with the international nuclear atomic order. More than 22 years have gone by since then. The international political and strategic regimes have undergone important changes and India today stands at the door of getting a seat at the global nuclear high-table—the Nuclear Supplies Group (NSG) which has in it officially-recognized nuclear weapon-possessing countries among others. India, without being a signatory to the “discriminatory” Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has travelled a long way from being a de factor nuclear weapon nation and is waiting to be formally recognized so by the NSG membership opposed by China which wants its all-weather friend Pakistan in the grouping. During this journey, India has signed the landmark civil nuclear deal with the United States in 2008, smoothening its joining the global civil nuclear commerce and established its status as a responsible nuclear power. India’s impeccable track record on the non-proliferation front stands in sharp contrast to reports of China’s help to Pakistan and North Korea’s nuclear programmes.
While Vajpayee’s tactical no first use theory has stood India in good stead, the Bharatiya Janata Party under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has moved on from there. Consider for instance that it was in 2017 the then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had, at a book launch, refused to accept why India as a “responsible” nuclear power would remain stuck to no first use stance. Though he later claimed that this was his “personal view”, he could not perhaps have been oblivious of his own party’s manifesto had spoken about on this issue just three years prior to that.
Obviously, Rajnath’s Twitter comment does not mean that the Indian government has decided to revisit the no first use posture but it may rekindle the debate over the subject. India’s draft nuclear doctrine in 1999 said its nuclear weapons were only for deterrence and was wedded to the use of these weapons as a retaliatory measure. At present, India is in the process of a new nuclear doctrine predicated to the building up of a “minimum nuclear deterrence.”
The Indian media has noted that Rajnath’s remark came in the midst of added tensions in India-Pakistan relations following New Delhi’s repeal of Article 370 of the Constitution which gave a special status to Jammu and Kashmir and China’s unhappiness with India giving a federally-ruled territory to Ladakh following the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir. While the Indian Defence Minister’s comment may or may not have anything to do with the ongoing crisis in Kashmir but one thing is clear: it reflected a new muscular thinking on the part of the Modi government since 2014. The cross-border strike against terror infrastructure in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir by India’s special forces in 2016, the Indian air strike on a terror camp in Balakot deep inside Pakistan in February this year and abrogation of Article 370 are components of this new thinking which is a break from the past and is not held back by status quoist frame of mind. The actions by India in 2016 and 2019 that the Modi government is not averse to having a relook at the no first use of nuclear weapons policy. Successive Indian governments, including that of Vajpayee, had adhered to the sanctity of unresolved border with Pakistan but Modi government was not inhibited by this when it came to responding to deadly terror attacks from across the border.
Pakistan has always raised the spectre of nuclear blackmail in conjunction with its promotion of cross-border terrorism. This is a matter of serious concern to India. There are also reports that Pakistan has developed tactical battlefield weapon to counter India’s no first use policy. Rajnath’s remark may be the proverbial straw in the wind.
Pallab Bhattacharya is
journalist based in India