It is not surprising that Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s comments last week that India’s commitment to “no first use” of nuclear weapons is not cast in stone have elicited widespread reaction in the Subcontinent and beyond. A number of factors make the minister’s statement a major departure in the evolution of India’s nuclear strategy. One is the choice of place and occasion. For his statement, the minister chose the site of India’s nuclear weapon tests on the death anniversary of former prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had declared India as a nuclear weapon power after the 1998 tests. That it comes in the middle of an unfolding political crisis with Pakistan lends greater salience to the statement.
A similar statement was made in 2016, by one of Singh’s predecessors in the defence ministry — Manohar Parrikar. But the government quickly intervened to insist that there was no change in policy. This time, there has been no denial or correction. Domestic and international critics have underlined the dangers of creating a credible first use policy. They suggest that abandoning no-first-use increases the danger of using nuclear weapons, especially in military crises of the kind that have become frequent on India’s borders with Pakistan and China. Others point to the demanding requirements of a first-use policy — a large inventory of nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them, strong intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities, and a sophisticated command and control system. If no-first-use offers a simple, robust and relatively inexpensive basis for deterring atomic adversaries, the structure to support a first-use doctrine is costly and inherently unstable. Some have argued that the steady accretion of India’s nuclear and related capabilities in recent years may be giving the NDA government the confidence to abandon the no-first-use policy.
The immediate motivation appears to be less technical, and more political. It is about managing India’s ties with Pakistan and China following Delhi’s decision to revoke the special constitutional status of J&K and the bifurcation of the state into Union Territories. Delhi is warning Pakistan and China — both of whom have nuclear weapons — that India will not be intimidated by Rawalpindi’s threats to trigger violence in Kashmir and then limit India’s responses with the threat of a nuclear escalation. Delhi is signalling its readiness to go to any extent, including the first use of nuclear weapons, in defending the changes it has initiated in Kashmir. This tough message is of a piece with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to launch air strikes on Pakistan’s territory last February, for the first time since the 1971 war, following the terror attack in Pulwama. In reorganising the political structures of Kashmir, demonstrating that it will use conventional force against terror camps in Pakistan, and affirming that it will not accept nuclear blackmail, Modi is declaring that the old rules that constrained India in Kashmir are no longer valid. We may be in uncharted waters until there are new rules to regulate the triangular nuclear dynamic between the three nations and their contestation in Kashmir.