Zachary Keck

Is India About to Abandon Its No-First Use Nuclear Doctrine?

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Zachary Keck

Is India About to Abandon Its No-First Use Nuclear Doctrine?

The BJP election manifesto suggests that India may soon adopt a more aggressive stance on nuclear weapons.

The presumed next Indian government could drop India’s no-first use (NFU) nuclear doctrine, if its new election manifesto is any guide.

Ahead of the start of elections in India this week, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—which is widely expected to win a plurality of seats and form a government under Narendra Modi—released its 2014 election manifesto.

In a section entitled, “Independent Strategic Nuclear Program,” the BJP promised that, if elected, it would “study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times.” It also stated that it would “maintain a credible minimum deterrent that is in tune with changing geostatic realities.”

The BJP is a pro-Hindu, nationalistic political party that has generally taken a much more strident stance on nuclear issues relative to the Congress Party that is currently in power. It was under BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee that India conducted its 1998 nuclear tests, formally declaring itself to be a nuclear weapons state. It is widely believed that Vajpayee had been planning on testing nuclear weapons during his previous 13 day stint as India’s premier in 1996, but was booted out of office before preparations were complete.

By contrast, under the current Congress-led government, India has focused more on developing its civilian nuclear energy sector, including signing the historic U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal. Moreover, just last week Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called for a global convention in which each nuclear-armed country adopted a no-first use doctrine. This would allow nuclear weapons to be taken off hair-trigger alert and theoretically could reduce the potential for accidental launches.

In the manifesto released on Monday, the BJP sought to reframe the nuclear debate by declaring: “BJP believes that the strategic gains acquired by India during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime on the nuclear program have been frittered away by the Congress. Our emphasis was, and remains on, beginning of a new thrust on framing policies that would serve India’s national interest in the 21st century. We will follow a two-pronged independent nuclear program, unencumbered by foreign pressure and influence, for civilian and military purposes, especially as nuclear power is a major contributor to India’s energy sector.”

Most news reports on the nuclear section of the manifesto said that the terminology was meant to signal that a BJP government would abandon India’s no-first use (NFU) nuclear doctrine if it prevails in the elections. In its 1999 draft nuclear doctrine, written by the BJP-led government that initiated the nuclear tests a year earlier, India adopted a no-first use nuclear doctrine and pledged to maintain a defense-oriented credible minimum deterrence.

That no-first use pledge was broadly upheld in a 2003 update to the nuclear doctrine, with the caveat that India reserved the right to use its nuclear arsenal to respond to chemical and biological weapons attacks. China also maintains a no-first use nuclear doctrine, but Pakistan has stated that it may use its nuclear arsenal under a number of different circumstances including to fend off a conventional attack and even if India tries to strangle it economically. There are also widely held suspicions that Pakistan is planning to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to blunt an Indian conventional attack.

Pakistan’s position, as well as fears that China is shifting its own nuclear doctrine, has spurred calls among some Indian analysts for a rethink of its own nuclear doctrine. Shashank Joshi has called attention to an alternative nuclear doctrine outlined by the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) in Delhi in 2012.

That report called for India to declare: “In adherence to a policy of no first use, India will not initiate a nuclear strike.” However, as Joshi points out, the report goes on to define initiate as “mating component systems and deploying warheads” with the possible intent of carrying out a nuclear strike. Joshi explains that this “means that if Pakistan mates its warheads to missiles as part of nuclear alerting during a crisis, it can be understood to have ‘initiated’ a nuclear strike. That denudes NFU of all meaning.” The same report advocates labeling allies of nuclear-armed countries as nuclear weapon states themselves, paving the way for India to launch nuclear strikes against them as well.

It’s unclear how Pakistan would react to India abandoning its NFU nuclear doctrine. Its options would presumably be somewhat constrained by its already aggressive nuclear doctrine. Still, there is little doubt that India’s abandonment of the NFU nuclear doctrine would heighten Pakistan’s concerns of an Indian first strike against its arsenal. This would convince Islamabad of the necessity of continuing to expand and diversify its arsenal, as well as engage in risky behavior to keep Indian defense planners guessing.

Another troubling scenario is that China would respond to a change in India’s nuclear doctrine by also loosening restrictions on the circumstances in which it would use nuclear weapons. This could in turn intensify the nuclear triangle between China, India and Pakistan. However, a Chinese response is not guaranteed as Beijing has sought to diminish India’s status by largely refusing to recognize Delhi as a nuclear weapon states.

Still, the NFU controversy underscores that the world may witness a more muscular Indian foreign policy should Modi and the BJP prevail in the current elections.