Why Rajnath Singh’s Nuclear Policy Rejig is Not That Surprising

Pakistan seems to have become the principal focus of the Narendra Modi government’s foreign policy. On a day when the United Nations Security Council held a rare closed door meeting to discuss Jammu & Kashmir, Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh weighed in on nuclear doctrine.

The UNSC move is not expected to go beyond formalities. As for Singh’s declaration, we need to see if they are fleshed out in some way in the coming months.

At first sight, Singh’s statement that, “Till today, our nuclear policy is ‘No first use’ (NFU). What happens in future depends on circumstances”, seemed like so much bombast.

But the timing of the statement, and the place where it was made, suggested that it may be part of a deeper messaging exercise of the government. A message that was being sent to Islamabad in a period of heightened tensions between the two countries.

Also Read: What to Make of Rajnath’s Remark on India’s Nuclear Policy Change?

But on nuclear matters, Pakistan is not our only interlocutor. Any policy shift has implications for our posture in relation to China.

Singh, though a member of the Political Council of the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) is not a principal actor when it comes to nuclear decision-making. That responsibility belongs to the prime minister. As for articulating policy, again, it is not the Ministry of Defence that is a player, but the National Security Adviser who chairs the Executive Council of the NCA.

Articulation of NFU Was a Political Decision

Questions about India’s NFU are not new. The articulation of the policy was a political decision aimed at mitigating the concerns of the international community in the aftermath of the May 1998 nuclear weapons tests.

Initially, the government sought to rope in Pakistan in a bilateral NFU. But Islamabad did not bite. On 4 August 1998, speaking on a debate on foreign policy in the Lok Sabha, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was more or less unequivocal by offering a universal no-first-use pledge – that India would not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, and not be the first to use them against the nuclear weapons states.

But the only official version of the pledge comes from the press statement of 4 January 2003, following a Cabinet Committee on Security discussion.

It says that India would adopt a posture of “no first use” and that nuclear weapons would “only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere.” 

However, it expands the exception by adding that even if Indian forces were attacked “ by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons.”

Pak’s Nuclear Threats Enough for India to Stay Committed to NFU

Questions about India’s commitment to NFU began to pour in following the development of Pakistani theatre nuclear weapons (TNWs) and its repeated statements that it would not hesitate to use such weapons first in the event India crossed its red lines, which were themselves suitably ambiguous.

This threat of nuclear retaliation has been sufficient to prevent India from responding effectively against grave Pakistani provocations, be the terrorist attack on Parliament House in December 2001, or the repeated terrorist outrages in Mumbai, culminating in the horrific attack of November 2008, or the continuing proxy war in Jammu & Kashmir.

The First Challenges to NFU

Amongst those who began raising their voices against NFU were people like former defence minister Jaswant Singh, who was once an ardent advocate of NFU. The former deputy to the National Security Adviser Satish Chandra, too, noted that the Pakistani development of TNWs was one of the principal reasons for the need to revisit the NFU commitment.

In June 2014, the former Strategic Forces Commander Lieutenant General (retd) Balraj Nagal declared in an article that NFU was virtually tantamount to inviting “large scale destruction in own country.”

He urged a doctrine of ambiguity, covering a range of areas from “first use, to launch on warning, launch on launch and NFU.”

However, the government did not feel any compelling need for change. On 24 April 2013, in a lecture to the Subbu Forum (named after K Subrahmanyam) Shyam Saran, chairman of the non-official National Security Advisory Board of the National Security Council, provided a succinct portrait of the Indian deterrent, committed to NFU, which he said was developing a triad “at a measured pace”.

As part of this, India had created a rugged and EMP-proof (electromagnetic pulse) command and control infrastructure that could survive a first strike. As an aside, he noted that the Indian system, too, worked on a two-person rule for access to armaments and delivery systems.

Reiterating the NFU pledge, he said that even with the complexity arising from the Pakistan-China nexus, India would continue to insist on the "central tenet" of its nuclear doctrine – that any nuclear attack, tactical or strategic, will be met with "nuclear retaliation which will be massive... "

BJP’s Shifting Stance on NFU

But this debate had another fallout, the BJP manifesto for the 2014 election contained a pledge to study “in detail” India’s nuclear doctrine and “revise and update it to make it relevant to challenges of current times”.

Some BJP leaders and experts close to the party suggested that a re-look at the NFU may be in order. But PM candidate Modi himself scotched all the speculation, declaring in an interview in April 2014 that "No first use was a great initiative of Atal Bihari Vajpayee – there is no compromise on that. We are very clear. No first use is a reflection of our cultural inheritance."

Little or nothing has happened in the intervening period on the NFU issue. In his 2016 book, ‘Choices’, former NSA Shivshankar Menon said that there was “a potential gray area” where India could breach its NFU pledge.

This was against a country which had a first-use policy and which appeared to be making preparations for a strike. “India’s present public nuclear doctrine is silent on this scenario.” But, he did not say what the classified doctrine had to say.

Also Read: Future of No-1st-Use Nuclear Policy Depends on Situation: Rajnath

In July 2018, the then Union Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had said that India should pledge to use its nuclear weapons “responsibly” and not necessarily give an NFU commitment. He also declared that this was his personal view and did not reflect government policy.

Modi, too, changed his tone earlier this year, especially during the Lok Sabha election campaign. In April, he said that India had called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff in striking at Balakot.

Later, he declared that India’s nuclear weapons were ‘not for Diwali’. India, he said, was not scared of Pakistan’s threat on account of nuclear weapons.

At the bottom of it all is whether our adversaries believe that we will truly adhere to NFU under all circumstances. China, with hugely superior forces, has the luxury of accepting our pledges, but not Pakistan – with all its neuroses relating to India.

And, if one nuclear armed country does not accept the integrity of the pledge, there is need to modify our posture suitably if we want to deter that country from any misadventure.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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