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Why a Rethink of India’s Nuclear Doctrine May be Necessary 

Former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon’s take on India’s No First Use (NFU) pledge in his recent book has led some nuclear thinkers to offer an exciting interpretation of India’s changing nuclear doctrine.

As Vipin Narang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently suggested, India may conduct a preemptive first strike if the use of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal appears imminent. This first strike would decapitate Pakistani arsenal to the effect that its ability to retaliate further is taken out of the equation. In short, India’s NFU policy is up for major revisions.

That has not been the official story, however. Critics are right in pointing out that since 2003, India has conditioned its NFU, its former strategic forces commanders have openly questioned NFU and Manohar Parrikar as Defence Minister had recently raised doubts on the desirability of NFU (in his personal capacity).

Yet, in 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had unequivocally asserted that India’s No First Use (NFU) policy is not open to change.

In April 2013, in what was widely taken to be a semi-official statement, Ambassador Shyam Saran too had ruled out any move towards a first use option.

How Did The NFU Sustain for So Long?

The current controversy suggests, at the very least, some closed door official rethink on India’s nuclear doctrine. NFU had always been a contentious proposition. When the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) was debating the draft nuclear doctrine in 1998, some members had openly argued against NFU. Yet, the debate was settled in favour of NFU mainly because of four reasons.

First, individuals at the helm of these internal negotiations – such as K Subrahmanyam and JN Dixit – were strong votaries of NFU. Individual convictions notwithstanding, India’s nuclear capability was also at an elementary stage. A first use doctrine demanded nuclear wherewithal unaffordable at that stage. Third, the objective of India’s nuclear weapons was primarily political: To avoid nuclear blackmail. Lastly, the NFU posture made India appear to be a responsible nuclear power.

This was necessary to cajole the Americans who had imposed economic sanctions after the 1998 nuclear tests. As Strobe Talbott argues in his memoirs, the US considered India’s nuclear doctrine as proof of its responsible nuclear behaviour.

Countering the Pakistani Threat

It is, therefore, worth asking what explains the recent shift in India’s nuclear thinking. Menon’s book, ‘Choices’, provides some answers in this regard. Central to Menon’s arguments is the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Pakistan’s nuclear shield permits Pakistan to undertake terrorist attacks on India without fear of retaliation. This may well have figured in the Pakistan Army’s calculations behind the Mumbai attack of 26 November 2008.

To further reinforce this perception, Pakistan also introduced tactical nuclear weapons around the same time. Pakistani calculations indicated a propensity for nuclear use at the lowest level of conventional conflict.

On the other hand, India’s posture of “retaliating massively” to any use of battle-field nuclear weapons was considered incredulous. India would not risk a nuclear exchange for a tactical nuclear use by Pakistan, so went the argument in Islamabad. If deterrence is a largely a game of perceptions, India appeared to be on the losing side. Perceptions around the credibility of India’s nuclear deterrent therefore required a balancing act. Reinforcing the threat of India’s nuclear retaliation to Pakistan’s use, or threat of use, of tactical nukes appears to be the logical response.

Menon is right in claiming that retaliation should not be restricted to civilian targets; it must take out Pakistan’s ability to endanger any Indian cities after Pakistan’s initial salvo.

Even in the official nuclear doctrine of 2003, there has been no distinction made between civilian and military-nuclear targets.

Menon’s use of the phrase “comprehensive first strike against Pakistan” in a scenario where tactical nukes are used by Islamabad is not out of context; it is rather one possible alternative to reinforce India’s retaliatory nuclear posture. The logic behind the rhetoric of preemption of an imminent Pakistani nuclear strike also serves the same purpose.

Rising India

The second factor which may explain this current doctrinal rethink is India’s rise as a nuclear power. India’s draft nuclear doctrine in 1999 was not just a statement of India’s nuclear strategy; it was also a pitch for its foreign policy. The restrained nature of India’s nuclear behaviour paid many dividends including the Indo-US nuclear deal.

In fact, the responsible nature of India’s nuclear behaviour was one of the major arguments in favour of the deal. That functional requirement is not so pressing in the present context, however. Post-2008 trajectory of India’s nuclear arsenal has been rather expansive without the threat of adverse reactions primarily from the US. India’s sea-based nuclear deterrent, or its ICBM capabilities, have been accepted as a natural corollary of India’s nuclear weapons programme. India’s emergence as a major power in global politics coupled with the changing geo-political balance of power has helped India’s cause.

As India rises on the international ladder, one cannot expect it to be bound by considerations which made sense a decade earlier – especially when it faces trigger-happy nuclear neighbours.

Such nostalgia submits to no strategic logic, even though it my disappoint a few nuclear analysts – who consider India’s changing nuclear behaviour as a threat to strategic stability and an ominous precursor to an arms race in the region. These sermons, as Menon argues, “sound to emerging powers like an attempt to continue an untenable status quo by those who designed and manage the present security order in Asia.” In short, India would not always act as a “status quoist power.

The most important take-away from the current debate is that such rethinking on India’s nuclear behaviour cannot be restricted to ideological leanings of any particular government in power.

The current doctrinal shift appears to have been in place since 2008 when the UPA government was in power.

Menon’s writings suggest that India’s national security considerations are not defined either by Hindu or by secular nationalism. They are merely a response to its changing security requirements. However, it also necessitates that the Indian government should officially review its nuclear doctrine in order to convey deterrence more effectively.

It cannot let those sitting in Washington and London be the interpreters of Indian nuclear strategy for the world at large. That responsibility lies with the government in New Delhi and it should be discharge it responsibly.

(Harsh V Pant is Distinguished Fellow and Head of Strategic Studies at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. Yogesh Joshi is Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same. )