The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) election manifesto of 2014 has pledged to revise India’s nuclear doctrine. The BJP manifesto intends to “study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times.” While the manifesto does not indicate any revision of the no-first-use (NFU) policy per se yet several reports attributing to “sources involved in drafting the [BJP manifesto]” claims that the NFU policy is likely to be reconsidered. Interestingly, in March 2011, senior BJP leader and former External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh had called on the United Progressive Alliance government to re-examine the antiquated NFU policy since the Government cannot ‘sit in yesterday’s policy’. What factors conditions BJP’s thinking that the NFU policy, which has served India’s strategic interests well over a decade under provocations of the Kargil War and continuous cross-border terrorism, needs a revision now?
Following the May 1998 nuclear tests, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government formulated the no-first-use policy. After serving India for more than a decade, the NFU policy was questioned for a revival in 2011. The primary rationale as proposed by Jaswant Singh was the security concerns originating from Pakistan’s expanding nuclear arsenal. Pakistan is reportedly in possession of 100 to 110 nuclear warheads, and possesses good delivery systems, reportedly derived from Chinese and North Korean systems. Singh also cited concerns for the lack of foolproof assurance over the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons under a fragile government primarily controlled by the military establishment with abysmal control over the terrorist groups operating on its soil. The veteran politician also cited an expansionist China with rising ambitions pose long-term threats to India. These alarms were quelled by the then External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna who categorically stated that there would be no revision of the NFU policy by the Indian government.
The efficacy of the NFU policy has been doubted upon by cynics on the ground that it holds little germaneness as an effective strategic contrivance against Pakistan. The NFU policy is primarily believed to be a merely declaratory policy and hence is devoid of essential mandatory legitimacy. The doctrine is viewed with equal skepticism within Pakistan particularly by its military establishment. For the Pakistan Army, India’s NFU posture is a “paper policy” that is incapable of surviving in crisis situations involving high risks. Pakistan outrightly dismisses the NFU doctrine as a “unilateral decision”, which can be rescinded anytime. Pakistan believes that depending on situations of crisis escalations, India’s NFU doctrine will be unable to sustain itself and would invariably transform into a first-use posture.
Much of the above criticisms cannot be overlooked. Further, the development of Pakistan’s Nasr tactical nuclear missile with rapid deployment and effective use of shoot-and-scoot tactics have raised alarms amongst Indian experts over the Pakistan’s strategic calculations. The development of Nasr is viewed by many Indian strategists to counter India’s posture of massive retaliation in case of a limited nuclear attack on an Indian contingent in Pakistani soil.
However, in military terms, nuclear weapons are not the answers to the strategic problems with either Pakistan or China. India’s NFU policy upholds this belief. As a status quo power, India’s strategic culture is devoid of any belligerent objectives. Besides India’s conventional force-structure is believed to be capable of neutralizing any conventional aggression from Pakistan by means of its Cold Start doctrine that is independent of the NFU policy. Further, any revision of the NFU policy is incapable of deterring China. On the contrary, any such revision might convey wrong signals to China about India’s aggressive military designs.
India’s external security environment has not gone any radical change in recent times for the government to consider the revision of the NFU policy. Cross-border terrorism still exists as before and Pakistan is still increasing its nuclear stockpile. India’s own nuclear stockpile is likely to expand especially given the developments being made in its breeder technology, which will yield reactor-grade plutonium. Hence, any hypothetical calculations of Pakistan’s nuclear bombs should not be a determining factor for revising the NFU policy.
Despite the continuing problems, what should be taken note of is the existence of a civilian government in Pakistan that has announced its intentions to forge improved bilateral ties with India. The Pakistan Army is also on the same page with its political establishment on the India policy. On the India-China front, other than voluminous bilateral trade both nations are working on security issues. The two sides have conducted joint Army drills to practice counter-terrorism manoeuvres and are expected to pilot the fourth round of their ‘Hand in Hand’ exercises in India in 2014.
India is the only nuclear country that declares a no-first-use stance against both nuclear and non-nuclear states. Though China also professes a same policy but there is some dilution on its stand. The NFU policy is a sound pillar of India’s nuclear doctrine. It conveys a policy of restraint, is devoid of any tactical nuclear strategy and a complicated command and control system. It abnegates brinkmanship by eschewing the deployment of weapons on hair-trigger alert and keeping an arms-race in check. In strategic terms, the no-first-use policy is premised upon an assured second-strike capability. As long as India’s second-strike capability is not corroded there is no reason to reject the NFU posture. India has an assured second-strike capability and nothing at present suggests that its retaliatory capability has been compromised. Hence, India must uphold the NFU policy as a sign of a restrained and responsible nuclear nation.