Speculation is rife in a section of the community that the new Indian government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi might decide to alter the country’s 1998 no-first use doctrine and adopt a new one .

It is derived from the dominant image of the new prime minister being inclined to an approach of "zero tolerance" in the realm of internal and external security and his Bharatiya Janata Party’s pledge in its parliamentary election manifesto to " study in detail nuclear doctrine… revise it and update it to make it relevant to the challenges of current times.”

Proponents of this speculation argue that the Modi government may go in for this exercise in view of the armament programs of Beijing and Islamabad, with both of which New Delhi has had a history of conflict. China’s annual defense expenditure has been growing at double digit rates over the past decade. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang recently told the National People’s Congress that Beijing would "strengthen research on national defense and the development of new- and high-technology weapons and equipment, " "enhance border, coastal and air defenses,”  promote “ the revolutionary nature” of its armed forces, and “raise their deterrence and combat capabilities in the information age." 

More importantly, the proponents say, China has recently introduced such nuances in its nuclear doctrine to make it clear that its policy of non-use of nukes is confined to non-nuclear weapon states and their territories. In other words, China might use nukes against a nuclear India which is, according to Beijing, in the occupation of Chinese territory such as Arunachal Pradesh that China claims as its own.

Besides, the proponents have also had concerns over Pakistan’s intent and ongoing preparations to use tactical nuclear weapons in the event of an Indian offensive on its territory. Pertinently, they add that Pakistan’s armament program is in a way far more disturbing than China’s. Unlike Beijing, Islamabad cannot be assumed to remain under the control of rational actors in the foreseeable future. The clout of the violent Islamists has been increasing in its society and state and the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence in particular. One could well imagine what might follow if they were able to lay their hands on its weapons of mass destruction.

The proponents of a change in the Indian nuclear doctrine have also had concerns that Pakistan and China might have been developing chemical and biological weapons even though they were parties to the 1974 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. Pakistan may also be developing biological weapons. Significantly, a US Department of Defense report also says that Islamabad has imported a number of dual-use chemicals with commercial applications which could be used to make chemical weapons. Pakistan does have the resources and scientific capability to conduct limited biological warfare research and development.

One, however, finds there is little likelihood of a change in the Indian nuclear doctrine. Both Prime Minister Modi and his Home Minister Rajnath Singh—the latter whom is also the BJP’s president --- have already ruled out any such possibility. The other day Singh clarified in an interview (PTI) that his government would maintain its 'no-first-use' nuclear policy and be "reviewing” the “policy to tune it with the interest of common masses." Modi echoed the same policy sentiments when he said in his interview (ANI) that "it is necessary to be powerful - not to suppress anyone, but for our own protection." And then he added, "No first use was a great initiative of Atal Bihari Vajpayee - there is no compromise on that. We are very clear. No first use is a reflection of our cultural inheritance."

Also, one sees there is hardly any need for the new dispensation to revise the current doctrine. Notwithstanding its adherence to its traditional policy of comprehensive disarmament, the successive dispensations since Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in New Delhi have all been very much aware of the ongoing conventional and nuclear armament program in the world, particularly in the neighboring states and have already effected appropriate changes in its nuclear policy from time to time. Under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, New Delhi demonstrated its nuclear capability as early as in 1974. Confronted with a regional scenario created by an “overt nuclear weapon state on our border” which “materially helped another neighbor of ours to become a covert nuclear weapon state,” New Delhi under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee conducted some advanced nuclear tests in 1998 and declared itself a nuclear weapon state.

Soon after the Vajpayee government devised the N.F.U. pledge to neutralize the then Western criticism of its 1998 nuclear tests, it realized the new doctrine was not sustainable as it would defeat the very rationale behind India conducting the tests of 1998 – that was to deter an attack from nuclear China. This realization led New Delhi to revise the N.F.U. pledge and declare that it would not come in the way of a nuclear retaliation against any chemical or biological strike. In other words, India’s “no first use” doctrine has been advanced further to accommodate a possible recourse to its first use if the situation ever demands so. Later, under the Manmohan Singh government, New Delhi came to add that India would apply N.F.U. only with respect to non-nuclear weapons states.

Knowledgeable sources say New Delhi has little to be scared about on the defense front. Its nuclear doctrine has been followed by a huge investment in improving its command, control, communications, and intelligence systems and its second strike capacity, including the survival of the decision-making structure. India's Defense Research and Development Organization is presently straining hard to develop a limited Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) shield. India’s sea-based leg of the triad of delivery systems is very much in the making. Besides, India today is equipped with an appropriate defensive nuclear biological and chemical (NBC) mechanism to counter the related threats from any potential corners.

An eminent Indian strategist says, "Given the various nuances introduced in the current Indian nuclear doctrine over the years and the important contingencies these already cater to, there appears to be no case to further revise it. Instead, the new government may focus adequately on shoring up the country's conventional deterrence capabilities which have been eroding due to the lack of financial appropriations and a series of corruption scandal.”

The author is a senior Indian journalist based in New Delhi.

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