The news-piece carried by Reuters India titled “BJP puts ‘no first use’ nuclear policy in doubt” has caused murmurs about dramatic changes that could be introduced in the Indian nuclear weapons policy with serious consequences on South Asia’s strategic stability, if a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government comes to power in 2014. The source of concern for Reuters’ reporters was the BJP’s much-awaited election manifesto that was released on Monday, 7 April 2014, which was also the first day of elections to India’s Lok Sabha (Lower House of the Parliament). Op-eds and statements from India’s nuclear strategic community have already shown up, attempting to douse a possible fire or to nip in the bud a latent controversy.
The 52-page manifesto has been identified as Modi-esque because its bears familiarity with the hard-hitting ‘vision’ of the party’s Prime Ministerial candidate. Where foreign policy and national security are concerned, the BJP’s manifesto stands out from those of the other major national-level political parties of India at the 2014 elections, particularly the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Indian National Congress (INC). It talks in relatively greater detail about the steps that the party’s government envisions to achieve India’s ‘comprehensive’ national security interests in the 21st century. Distinctive from the other party manifestos, a sub-section in the BJP’s document is dedicated to the goal of building an independent strategic nuclear programme. It undertakes to ‘study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times, (to) maintain a credible minimum deterrent that is in tune with changing geostatic realities’ and to ‘invest in India’s indigenous Thorium Technology Programme’.
If one reads these objectives in the same context as the Reuters article read it, the easiest assumption would be that the BJP is suggesting a revision to the Indian No First Use (NFU) policy. Three reasons support such an assumption. First, India has failed to push Pakistan to adopt a no first use pledge (from its current first use policy) which would reduce, in India’s view, possibilities of nuclear aggression between the two countries. Even the Chinese defence white paper of 2013 abstains from explicitly using the phrase ‘no first use of nuclear weapons’. Second, in 2011, Jaswant Singh, senior leader from the BJP and the external affairs minister in the NDA government which brought out the draft report on the Indian nuclear doctrine in 1999, called for the Indian NFU policy to be revised in light of the changed security situations. Although Singh confirmed that this was his individual opinion, it laid a precedent that such demands have already been voiced from the BJP’s leadership. Third, since 2003 when the Cabinet Committee on Security officially approved the Indian nuclear doctrine, the chemical and biological weapons caveat to the NFU pledge and the doctrine of massive retaliation have come under extensive debate within the country’s strategic community. A substantial section of scholars and strategists have insisted a revision to the two features of Indian nuclear doctrine.
Although the BJP manifesto does not stipulate specifically on any change to the NFU pledge, an unprovoked reversal of the NFU by any Government of India in the present strategic environment is thought to be unlikely. The NFU is one of the core principles of India’s nuclear policy and supports other doctrinal elements like minimum deterrence, second strike capability, assured retaliation and even guides new technological developments like the ballistic missile defence. The NFU has been the constant subtext for India’s possession of nuclear weapons. Far from being a sign of strength and firmness, giving up the NFU does not only change the rationale for the Indian nuclear weapons programme but is too risqué because a First Use policy cannot be credibly exercised. Besides, fundamental changes to nuclear doctrines are not mandated by election manifestos of political parties. That the Indian nuclear weapons policy should be revisited and updated to incorporate the changes in India’s security environment and to respond to the emergence of new doctrines and technologies that have come up in South Asia’s nuclear strategic balance can be seen as a welcome call. In fact, the need for studying India’s nuclear weapons policy should have been a part of the national manifestos of the other political parties to reassure the international as well as domestic audiences that the Indian political leadership across parties is both, aware and actively engaged in deliberating on the country’s nuclear policy.