Is India still committed to its no-first-use nuclear policy?
11 Nov 2019|

On 16 August, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh hinted that India might abandon its no-first-use policy: ‘Till today, our nuclear policy is “no first use”. What happens in future depends on the circumstances.’

Singh was speaking on the anniversary of the death of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was India’s prime minister when it conducted five tests in May 1998 and declared itself to be a nuclear-weapon-possessing state. Singh had travelled to Pokhran, the site of the 1998 tests, for that purpose.

The defence minister’s comments came only days after India annulled Kashmir’s special status and provoked a flurry of apocalyptic warnings from Pakistan, which rejects no first use, about a nuclear conflagration. Moreover, Singh took over the portfolio in Narendra Modi’s second cabinet only after the May elections, so his comments are best viewed as more of a thought bubble than considered policy.

The same is true of similar off-the-cuff questioning of the no-first-use policy by the late Manohar Parrikar in November 2016, when he was defence minister. That produced the extremely unusual clarification from his own ministry that Parrikar’s opinion was personal and did not reflect official policy.

At the biennial Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference in Washington in March 2017, Vipin Narang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology gave a talk expounding on the likely abandonment of the policy by India. He drew a very long bow using a few very slender strings like Parrikar’s remarks and scattered musings of some former officials in newspapers and books. I was there, seated in the audience. Familiar with Parrikar’s comments and most of the other commentary that Narang used to weave his story, I was taken aback at how much credence he gave to the hypothesis.

My first reaction was that changing the policy was not on the agenda even for discussion. Colonel I.S. Panjrath later published a paper with the United Services Institution of India that highlighted how Narang had engaged in ‘selective and unfair citing’ of the arguments of ex-officials like Shiv Shankar Menon. Delhi-based nuclear expert Manpreet Sethi also dismissed Narang’s thesis as speculative ‘ghost hunting’.

My second reaction was to reflect that, drawing on equivalent remarks by people like Robert McNamara, Lee Butler, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Sam Nunn and William Perry, I could make a more persuasive case that the US was about to renounce nuclear weapons! Yet the prospect of that actually happening would be close to zero.

At one level, Singh’s remarks are banal: of course what happens in the indeterminate future will depend on the circumstances of the time. But the triple context of his remarks negates the thesis that Singh was messaging Pakistan about an erosion of India’s commitment to no first use. That’s why the use of words like ‘ominous’ to describe Singh’s statement—leading Narang and Christopher Clary to conclude that a ‘moth-eaten’ no-first-use policy ‘wasn’t much of a commitment at all’, and indeed has now become ‘a crumbling pillar of India’s nuclear doctrine’—is fundamentally fallacious.

Launching a book in February by Rakesh Sood, his special envoy for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, former PM Manmohan Singh described India as ‘a reluctant nuclear weapon state’. This reluctance finds expression in its no-first-use policy, confirming that for India, the bomb is a political weapon to deter the use of nuclear weapons against it, not a militarily useable offensive weapon to compel or blackmail another country.

Another major foreign policy goal of all Indian governments has been to de-hyphenate India from Pakistan and convince as many foreign governments and analysts as possible to pair India instead with China as a strategic competitor. Even the original justification by Vajpayee to President Bill Clinton in 1998 explained India’s breakout as a response to the China threat, including Beijing’s critical role as the enabler of Pakistan’s nuclearisation.

Abandoning no first use, which coincidentally draws on the important Indian cultural tradition of courtesy encapsulated in ‘After you’ (‘Pehle aap’—literally, ‘You first’), would disconnect India from China and re-hyphenate it with Pakistan, for no military gain or advantage.

China and India are the only two of the nine nuclear-armed states with the stated commitment to no first use and matching force postures. Between them they possess under 3% of global nuclear warheads, but feel confident enough in their small deterrent forces to adopt no-first-use policies. China is committed to the no first use without qualification. India holds that it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons but would respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail and it comes under nuclear, biological or chemical attack.

After the 1998 tests, India’s most pressing diplomatic challenge was to reconcile its security imperatives with international concerns about nuclear proliferation. It tried to do so with a stress on responsibility and restraint. The rudiments of its strategic posture congealed around an acknowledgment of the nuclear reality vis-à-vis Pakistan; a minimum deterrent against China; unilateral promises of no use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states and no first use against nuclear adversaries; a unilateral moratorium on any further testing; and a commitment to work towards nuclear disarmament.

Most of this was spelt out in the paper ‘Evolution of India’s nuclear policy’, tabled by Vajpayee in parliament in May 1998, reaffirmed in the national security advisory board’s draft report on nuclear doctrine in 1999, and formally adopted by the cabinet committee on security, chaired by the PM, in 2003.

The 1999/2003 nuclear doctrine remains in place despite calls for change among some Indian nuclear strategists who argue it’s not credible. After the 2014 election of the Modi government, some Indian hawks, driven by the news that Pakistan had developed the short-range nuclear-capable missile Nasr, called for India to review its policy on no first use.

The party’s election manifesto had promised to study India’s nuclear doctrine and realign it with changing geostrategic realities. However, after the election, Modi put an end to speculation when he stated in public that there would be no doctrinal review.

In addition to its profound symbolic value, no first use has significant practical implications. It encourages a shift away from high-risk doctrines with flow-on requirements for nuclear force posture and deployment—for example, de-alerting, de-mating and de-targeting—that would significantly dampen the prospects of accidental and unauthorised use.

A global no-first-use convention, which both China and India have called for at different times, could become the centrepiece of a nuclear restraint regime to strengthen the norm of non-use of nuclear weapons, buttress strategic stability and mute crisis instability by decreasing the pressure on decision-makers to ‘use or lose’ their nuclear arsenal.