At a time when a large section of the Indian media has spoken about hyper-nationalism while another section is guilty of it, when relations between India and Pakistan are already tense, and merely a day before a special meeting to consider the criterion for India's entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar on Thursday expressed his 'personal opinion' that India should not bind itself a 'no first use policy' on nuclear weapons.
Explaining the need to be unpredictable in warfare strategy, Parrikar had said, "Why should I bind myself? I should say I am a responsible nuclear power and I will not use it irresponsibly. This is my (personal) thinking."
The 'no first use' (NFU) policy is the principle adopted by a nuclear power to not use nuclear weapons unless first attacked by nuclear weapons by another country. India had declared an NFU policy following the nuclear weapons test in 1998.
"It has not changed in the government. It is my concept. As an individual, I also get a feeling. I am not saying you have to use it first. Hoax can be called off," PTI had quoted the minister as saying. He also added that prior to the surgical strike, the Pakistani defence minister used to threaten India with the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons.
"From the day the surgical strike happened, no threat has come. They realised that we can do something which is not well-defined," he pointed out.
It is true that Pakistan does not have an NFU policy. But if Parrikar was trying to suggest that Pakistani aggression has reduced after the surgical strikes, one only needs to consider the simple fact that out of the 151 incidents of ceasefire violations across the Line of Control this year, 110 of them have taken place since September. Moreover, over half of these violations took place after the surgical strikes, according to The Indian Express.
That is far from Parrikar's description of "no threat". If anything, Pakistani aggression has only increased after the surgical strikes.
There are many good reasons why the government has distanced itself from Parrikar's personal opinion. In fact, this is perhaps the best evidence to show how erroneous and ill-timed the defence minister's opinion was. The government was forced to resort to damage control and stress on how it did not agree with that opinion.
But Parrikar should realise that he is, after all, the defence minister of the country and his opinion will have an impact on how the world perceives India. His 'personal opinion' has already led to some consequences, with The News International (a Pakistani daily), misinterpreting his remark and publishing a report titled 'India going back on ‘no-first-use nuke’ stance'.
Here's why Parrikar's remark on the NFU policy can damage India's reputation:
Government's support to NFU policy
Before the Lok Sabha polls, BJP in its manifesto had made a pledge to "study in detail India's nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times", causing worry that BJP would go back on the 18-year NFU policy if it came to power.
However, the then prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi had made it clear that "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." Rajnath Singh had also said that the BJP would stick to the NFU policy.
In April 2016, when US president Barack Obama had asked India to reduce its nuclear arsenal, External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup had said, "Yes, we have seen those remarks. There seems to be a lack of understanding of India’s defence posture. Conventionally, India has never initiated military action against any neighbour. We also have a no-first use nuclear weapons policy."
Apart from the fact that Parrikar's remarks go against the statements of the prime minister, home minister and the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), India's justification for not reducing its nuclear arsenal would disappear if the NFU policy was rejected.
This brings us to the second point.
India's reputation and its link with NSG membership
NSG is the elite club of countries controlling access to sensitive nuclear technology. At the NSG’s plenary session in Seoul, China had blocked India’s bid for membership. The meeting ended after an agreement was pushed by Australia and Mexico that a special meeting would be held in November to discuss the criteria for India’s entry.
That special meeting will be held on Friday and Saturday during a plenary session in Vienna.
China is already leading opposition to a push by the United States and other major powers for India to join the NSG. Other countries opposing Indian membership of the NSG include Ireland and Austria (at least).
By the way, China has also pledged to follow the NFU policy. If India now rejects the NFU policy, what effect do you think it will have on its chances of joining the NSG, which are already bleak because of a nation, which follows the NFU policy, blocking India's membership?
Apart from virtually destroying India's chances of getting NSG membership in the near future, this may further damage India as the NSG may choose to review the 2008 exemption to NSG rules granted to India to support its nuclear cooperation deal with the US. The exemption was granted although India has developed atomic weapons and never signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the main global arms control pact. And while the NFU policy is not explicitly articulated in the India-US Civil Nuclear Agreement, the political climate of South Asia could even force the US to consider a review if India drops its stand on first use.
Additionally, India going back on NFU policy will be an embarrassment because India has always been vocal about nuclear disarmament. India has a reputation of being a peace-loving country. In 2012, a study called 'Towards a treaty banning nuclear weapons' had said that 146 nations had declared their willingness to negotiate a new global disarmament pact. Out of these 146 nations, only four were nuclear weapons states: India, Pakistan, China and North Korea.
In 2006, during a UN General Assembly meeting, 125 state parties — including India — had called for "commencing multilateral negotiations leading to an early conclusion of a nuclear weapons convention prohibiting the development, production, testing, deployment, stockpiling, transfer, threat or use of nuclear weapons and providing for their elimination."
Pakistani and Chinese aggression
As far as Pakistan is concerned, going back on the NFU policy may actually escalate the already tense situation. In an article published in the International Affairs Forum (a publication of Centre for International Relations — an unaffiliated US-based organisation focusing on global relations), it was argued that it was India's NFU policy which had kept the nuclear arsenal in both India and Pakistan in a de-mated posture, which means that the nuclear warheads are not mated with the delivery systems. A first strike policy may change this situation, which increases the chances of nuclear terrorism in Pakistan, something India should avoid at all costs.
And if India goes back on its NFU policy, it makes it more likely that China will also see less reason to continue its own NFU policy, leading to more tension in South Asia.
With inputs from agencies
Note: This article was updated to clarify the point on the India-US Civil Nuclear Agreement