First to use or not to use first: A curious case of Indian nuclear doctrine

The Hindu nationalist party, BJP, when stepped in power corridors it pledged to “revise and update” India’s nuclear doctrine.

In its election manifesto, BJP promised to make nuclear doctrine relevant to contemporary security challenges. Earlier, senior BJP leader Jaswant Singh stated that the policy framework devised by National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is “very greatly” in need of revision. He further stated “You cannot continue to sit in yesterday's policy”. Nonetheless, defense minister Manohar Parrikar’s recent bizarre comments sparked new controversy when he questioned his country’s NFU policy.

Speaking at a book release ceremony Mr. Parrikar stated: "If a written down strategy exists or you take a stand really on a nuclear aspect, I think you are actually giving away your strength in nuclear, a lot of people say India has a no-first-use nuclear policy, but why should I bind myself? I should say I'm a responsible nuclear power and I will not use it irresponsibly. This is my thinking."

Though, he clarified that his opinion wouldn’t amount to alter nuclear doctrine but the defense ministry immediately distanced itself by calling his remarks “personal.”

However, number of experts saw his statements as an articulation of official policy while maintaining deniability.

Mr. Parrikar holds Country’s one of the most influential political office which is directly involved in dealing with nuclear decision-making. As a defense minister, he is part of Political Council of the Nuclear Command Authority. Being representative of the apex authority on nuclear weapons, Parrikar’s comments have developed considerable amount of interest

Achin Vanaik, a distinguished scholar and one of the founders of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace strongly criticized defense minister’s remarks saying that Parrikar’s comments can’t be taken lightly. Vanaik further stated “This is part of a wider strategy to inject certain things into the public discourse that fits in with the belligerent, intolerant nationalism this government is pushing.”

Hawks in New Delhi argue that India must ensure compatibility of policies and strategies viz –a-viz evolving security dynamics in the region. According to the Bharat Karnad, a national security expert at the Centre for Policy Research, “The more ambiguity and opacity there is about a nuclear doctrine, the more it adds to deterrence.”

Interestingly, China also pursues NFU policy and there seem no indication of policy shift. However, India’s doctrinal changes may convince Beijing to revisit its nuclear doctrine. India maintains that Chinese nuclear threat was the main stimulant behind its nuclear overdrive. Interestingly, unlike India, China has a consistent history of publicizing its unconditional policy of “No First Use” of nuclear weapons, yet Indian experts are reluctant to accept. 

For instance, Dr. Adityanjee while referring to Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu says “Strategic deception has been an important part of China’s military DNA” hence its nuclear doctrine does not hold sincere meaning.

Indian hawks also neglect an extremely important fact that there is no critical discourse coming out of China asking to revisit its NFU pledge. India’s policy of no first use is backed by threat of “Massive Retaliation.”

A distinguished former Foreign Secretary of India, Shyam Saran has stated that any nuclear attack (strategic or tactical weapons) would be met by "massive retaliation."

It means India will go full-fledge nuclear escalation if Pakistan uses its TNWs against punitive conventional retaliation. This claim clearly suggests that, India has been trying to find space for limited conventional war against Pakistan without crossing nuclear threshold.

Pakistan being inferior in both economic and military terms cannot afford military engagement with India. It responded India’s provocative strategy by introducing tactical nuclear weapons. The rationale behind Pakistan's tactical nuclear weapon was to deter Indian proactive war-fighting strategies formally known as Cold Start Doctrine. Although, nuclear experts in Pakistan claim that TNWs have reduced chances for conventional attack emanating from militarily mighty India.

Nuclear Pundits in New Delhi accused and singled-out Pakistan for its First-Use pledge. On April 2006, the President Obama in his concluding remarks at Nuclear Security Summit in Washington when asked India to reduce its nuclear weapons, India refuted by saying that it follows no-first use of nuclear weapons policy. While speaking at a conference organized by Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis, the then Indian premier Manmohan Sing proposed a global convention on “no first use” of nuclear weapons. It suggests that India, in past, has glorified its NFU policy. It has used NFU policy as an instrument to secure legitimacy for its de-facto nuclear weapon status without being signatory to the nuclear nonproliferation regime (NPT).

It is quite evident that, over a five-year period, India remains world’s largest arms importer. India accounted for 14 per cent of total imports between 2011 and 2015. Pakistan stands nowhere in conventional parity with India. Pakistan’s reliance on its nuclear weapons is increasing due to the fact that, it lacks gigantic military strength to avert conventional threat from India. Therefore India’s ambition to re-articulate its doctrine to make it solely relevant to Pakistan’s TNWs would degrade India’s global nuclear posture.

On several counts, India’s NFU posture has played an instrumental role in its strategic gains. The NFU policy has been diplomatically used particularly in the backdrop of civil nuclear cooperation agreements with U.S., Japan, Canada and Australia. The glorification of NFU pledge has yielded immense support for India’s accommodation in multilateral nuclear export control regime.

A shift towards “first use” of nuclear weapon posture will have ripple effect in South Asia. A calm and cool China may also look for the prospects of doctrinal shift vis-a-vis India. A policy shift will lead to lowering of nuclear threshold making South Asia a ‘nuclear flashpoint’. Therefore it would be unwise for India to go for doctrinal changes in world’s one of the most fragile region. 

Yasir Hussain is pursuing MPhil degree in International Relations from School of Politics and International Relations Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad.

The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.