Over the preceding decade, New Delhi’s stated nuclear doctrine that India would not be the first to use nuclear weapons has been incrementally diluted through ambiguous official statements. These include one in 2010 from a serving national security advisor (NSA), Shivshankar Menon; and another in 2016 from a serving defence minister, Manohar Parrikar, which the defence ministry later qualified as his “personal views”.
On Saturday, speaking to the media in the symbolic location of Pokhran, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh became the latest and highest level official to place a question mark over India’s “nuclear no first use” (NNFU) pledge, when he stated that India may not feel indefinitely or unquestionably bound to NNFU.”
“Until now, our nuclear policy has been based on ‘No First Use’, but what happens in the future will depend on the circumstances,” said Singh.
In a tweet, Singh stated: “Pokhran is the area which witnessed Atal [Behari Vajpayee] Ji’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.”
In nuclear warfare theory, an NFFU pledge engenders nuclear stability, especially in a crisis, by assuring nuclear powers that they would not be subjected to a pre-emptive nuclear strike, and are therefore under no pressure to fire their nukes. By this logic, nuclear theorists argue that New Delhi’s dilution of its NFFU pledge creates “use it or lose it” incentives in Pakistan to pre-emptively its nukes.
Chris Clary of State University of New York, an expert on South Asia security, argues that India’s dilution of NFFU increases the risk of Pakistani nuclear use.
“Given India's investments in precision-strike conventional and nuclear missiles and ballistic missile defence, along with its impressive advances in surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, India's adversaries have strong reasons to doubt whether in a crisis, India retains any commitment not to use nuclear weapons first. It is hard enough anyway to convince enemies of an NFU doctrine, but routine questioning of that doctrine by senior officials is one recipe for disbelief,” says Clary.
While Vajpayee firmly stuck by NNFU, the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been more ambiguous. Leading into the 2014 elections, Modi’s manifesto promised to “revise and update [India’s nuclear doctrine] to make it relevant to the challenges of current times.” Many interpreted this as a pledge to dilute NNFU.
Modi quickly denied such an intention, stating in an interview in April 2014: “NFU was a great initiative of Atal Behari Vajpayee. There is no compromise on that. We are very clear. NFU is a reflection of our cultural inheritance.”
As recently as November 2018, while operationalizing India’s nuclear missile submarine, INS Arihant, Modi again committed to NNFU: “[India] remains committed to the doctrine of Credible Minimum Deterrence and No First Use, as enshrined in the decision taken…on January 4, 2003.”
But ambiguity about India’s commitment to NFFU long pre-dates Modi. In 2010, Shivshankar Menon, addressing the National Defence College as the serving NSA, described India’s nuclear doctrine as emphasising “minimal deterrence, no first use against non-nuclear weapon states and its direct linkage to nuclear disarmament.”
Since Menon confined the NFFU pledge to “non-nuclear weapon states”, analysts concluded India was retaining a first-use option against nuclear adversaries, especially Pakistan and China.
Intriguingly, this year, the Ministry of External Affairs, changed the text of Menon’s 2010 speech on its website, citing India’s emphasis on “minimal deterrence, no first use and non use against non-nuclear weapon states and its direct linkage to nuclear disarmament.”
Close watchers of India’s nuclear policy, such as Vipin Narang of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, were quick to pick up on this change. Narang tweeted: “Whoa. MEA edited this Shivshankar Menon speech text online! As of January 2019 it read: ‘no first use against non nuclear weapons states’ which was a dilution [of NFFU]. Now it reads: ‘emphasis on minimal deterrence, no first use and non use against non-nuclear weapon states’ which is not [a dilution]!”
Ankit Panda, South Asia expert with The Diplomat, says the BJP’s ambiguity on NFFU is consistent with Modi’s strategy. “Given Modi's penchant for surprise in the national security space, as seen with the Balakot strikes, ASAT test, and Article 370 abrogation, a renewed nuclear posture—if not doctrine—designed to suit India's present circumstances is not at all unthinkable,” says Panda.
Shashank Joshi, Defence Editor of the Economist, says: “The benign interpretation is that New Delhi is signalling to countries like China that if they alter their nuclear doctrines, India may follow suit. The less charitable and more destabilising interpretation is that India is trying to eat its cake and have it too: signalling commitment to NFU, but sowing doubt as to whether India would adhere to it in a crisis.”
Narang takes note of the statement made by the former chief of India’s Strategic Forces Command, Lieutenant General BS Nagal, who publicly declared that, notwithstanding NFFU, India’s leaders could not stand by and wait for an adversary to nuke the country.
Says Narang: “There has long been [Indian] discomfort with an absolute NFU policy. If evidence of imminent Pakistani nuclear use were clear, what Indian PM could sit back and allow Indian forces or citizens to be hit and not try to pre-empt? Singh is just saying what many, especially China and Pakistan, already believe.”