Union Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s comments questioning the wisdom of India’s “no first use” commitment on nuclear weapons are breathtaking not for their content, but their irresponsibility. Nowhere in the world do high officials voice their private musings on nuclear doctrine at book-launch functions, and with good reason. The possession of nuclear weapons, which can claim tens of millions of lives, imposes an obligation of great reflection and restraint. That Parrikar’s comments were made while Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Japan, negotiating a nuclear deal with the only country in the world which has suffered the use of nuclear weapons, speaks volumes. India has sought entry to the global nuclear order saying it is a responsible nuclear power. Now, the world has seen its defence minister discuss grave policy issues in the most casual manner possible. This is cause for obvious concern. Those who use words without care, it could be said, are prone to act without thinking, too.
Though the tenor of Parrikar’s remarks suggests he has only recently arrived at the thought that the NFU might be a bad idea, the debate is an old one. By committing to the NFU, critics have argued, India allows more powerful adversaries, specifically China, to plan large-scale conventional offensives secure in the knowledge India will not reach for its strategic deterrent. Abandoning the NFU, the argument goes, injects uncertainty in the offensive calculations of such an adversary. True, other theorists contend, but abandoning the NFU also has costs. For example, it encourages Pakistan, at the receiving end of the same conventional asymmetry India has with China, to build even more nuclear weapons, since it cannot be sure India will not attempt a pre-emptive first strike to obliterate its arsenal.
Having weighed the debate, India committed to the NFU in 1999, following that up in 2003 with a declaration that it would “not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike, but will respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail”. The BJP’s 2014 election manifesto promised to revise India’s nuclear doctrine “to make it relevant to challenges of current times”. The Union government has not announced any review, but, like nation-states across the world, public debate on these grave issues ought to be welcome. If the defence minister had a thought-through contribution to make, he should have offered it. To make throw-away remarks, and then seek to pass them off as “personal”, is a national disservice.