Folly of an Indian Nuclear Shift
Image Credit: Antônio Milena

Folly of an Indian Nuclear Shift


When one of the senior lawmakers from India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party—and a former External Affairs Minister—calls on the government to re-examine its doctrine of no-first-use (NFU), it’s bound to turn some heads, at home and abroad.

The rationale behind Jaswant Singh’s suggestion is the increasingly multi-pronged security concerns facing India. According to Singh, the NFU doctrine—formulated by the National Democratic Alliance government in 1998—is ‘yesterday’s policy.’

In calling for it to be revisited, Singh has emphasized the security concerns over Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal. Pakistan is reportedly in possession of 100 to 110 nuclear warheads— double India’s nuclear stockpile of approximately 50 to 60 warheads. Italso has good delivery systems, which it reportedly received from China and North Korea. This combined with the reality that Pakistan is a state in turmoil run by a powerless government that has little control over the terrorist groups operating within its territory, makes it clear why there is some cause for concern.

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But it’s not only concerns over Pakistan that have apparently been playing on Singh’s mind—he has also pointed to China’s rising influence in Nepal’s internal affairs to substantiate his claim that Beijing poses a long-term threat to India.

Does the Indian government agree with the veteran politician’s assessment? Certainly not officially. External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna has publicly asserted that there will be no revision of the NFU policy by the government. But the seriousness of the issue means that policymakers can’t dismiss Singh’s points as the concerns of a single politician.

Sceptics question the efficacy of the NFU policy on the grounds that it has little relevance as a strategic tool against Pakistan—they see it as a declaratory policy, rather than one with binding legitimacy. Pakistan’s military establishment, meanwhile, appears suspicious about whether India would actually follow through with its NFU doctrine if push comes to shove. After all, the policy is a unilateral decision that can be revoked at any time if the situation demands.

But does India really need to depend on a nuclear threat against Pakistan and China? India’s strategic culture clearly demonstrates that it is a status quo power devoid of any aggressive intention. Besides, India’s conventional strength is more than adequate to defend it against Pakistan. This conventional advantage is further reinforced by India’s offensive policy of ‘Cold Start,’ which seeks to circumvent any nuclear response from Pakistan. The Cold Start doctrine is independent of the NFU pledge, meaning India can use it to neutralise any conventional aggression by Pakistan.

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