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Turning India's nuclear doctrine into campaign rhetoric won't change strategy, but Narendra Modi must be wary of the risks

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set the nuclear cat among the pigeons by bringing up the topic during an election rally in Barmer, Rajasthan. We will take a look at Modi's exact words, but the nuclear reference shouldn't be a surprise. The BJP, after all, is determined to make nationalism and national security the key election issues.

Opinion varies, in accord with political affiliations, on BJP's motives but there's no denying that these issues are at the front and centre of current political discourse in the middle of 2019 Lok Sabha election.

The questions worth asking at this point are whether Modi’s reference to India’s nuclear weapons and hard-power capabilities refer to a change in India’s nuclear doctrine or was it merely a statement of deterrence. Or was it just campaign rhetoric to turbocharge the national security debate? Either way, what effect do these comments have on India’s strategic posture?

It is interesting to note the context in which Modi picked up the topic of nuclear weapons. From the third phase onwards, the elections include much of Hindi heartland states where the BJP is expected to hold on to its 2014 gains if it harbours any chance of retaining power. BJP’s performance during Assembly elections in some of these states — Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh — have been less than impressive. It defeated a spirited challenge from Congress in Gujarat and was defeated in the other three.

 Turning Indias nuclear doctrine into campaign rhetoric wont change strategy, but Narendra Modi must be wary of the risks

There’s doubtless an effort by BJP’s star campaigner — who also happens to be the incumbent prime minister — to highlight before the electorate that India’s reaction to crises has fundamentally changed under the NDA, as opposed to seemingly timorous response of the earlier UPA. AFP

If the BJP has zeroed in on national security and nationalism — flowing from the Pulwama terror attacks and Balakot airstrikes — as poll planks, it stands to reason that the party will step on the gas exactly at this time. In Chittorgarh, Rajasthan, Modi reportedly urged the electorate to vote for BJP to defeat terrorism. The issue of terrorism has got renewed global attention after the Pulwama attacks in Kashmir and serial blasts in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday where the death count is already touching 400.

But it was in Barmer that the nuclear topic came up. The prime minister said, “Bharat ne Pakistan ki dhamki se darne ki neeti ko chhod diya. Yeh theek kiya na maine? Warna aaye din, 'humare paas nuclear button hai, nuclear button hai'. Yehi kehte thhe? Humare akhbaarwale bhi likthe thhe, Pakistan ke paas bhi nuclear hai. Toh humare paas kya hai, bhai, yeh Diwali ke liye rakha hai kya? (India has discarded the policy of being scared of Pakistan’s threats. I did right, didn’t I? Because every other day, they would say, 'we have the nuclear button’. Isn’t that what they used to say? Our newspapers also wrote, ‘Pakistan, too, has a nuclear weapon’. So what do we have, is it kept for Diwali?)”, according to a report in The Indian Express.

In Gujarat's Patan, while addressing a poll rally, the prime minister seemed to be confirming an earlier media report that claimed India and Pakistan had come close to launching missiles against each other in the aftermath of Balakot airstrikes. India had dismissed that report filed by Reuters but Modi’s words presumably went against India’s official position.

"You know that US President has said Modi would do something big. Another US person said Modi had kept 12 missiles ready if Abhinandan was not released by Pakistan and the situation would have worsened. Yes, it was qatl ki raat (night of murder),” he said, referring to Pakistan’s capture of IAF Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. “Your Modi will not hesitate to go to any extent to protect the country and you," The Hindu reported.

In both the speeches, the desire to put forward a macho image of India under Modi’s leadership is evident. There's doubtless effort by BJP’s star campaigner — who also happens to be the incumbent prime minister — to highlight before the electorate that India’s reaction to crises has fundamentally changed under the NDA, as opposed to seemingly timorous response of the earlier UPA. If we leave this part aside — the campaign rhetoric that’s apparently necessary to win elections — what does Modi’s comments tell us about India’s nuclear doctrine? Has that changed?

There is a certain danger in cavalier use of the topic of nuclear weapons in campaign rhetoric. Modi might fire the imagination of the electorate and kickstart a debate on national security but he may progressively find it difficult to manage the escalation matrix next time there is a Pakistan-sponsored terror attack. AFP

There is a certain danger in cavalier use of the topic of nuclear weapons in campaign rhetoric. Modi might fire the imagination of the electorate and kickstart a debate on national security but he may progressively find it difficult to manage the escalation matrix next time there is a Pakistan-sponsored terror attack. AFP

On the available evidence before us — taking into account Navy’s deployment of nuclear submarines during IAF's airstrikes — one has to answer in the negative. The rhetorical posturing aside, Modi's point was that if Pakistan makes it a habit of threatening India with pre-emptive nuclear strikes, then it must know that India's weaponry isn’t meant for pyrotechnics during festivities. In other words, Modi was reiterating the deterrent doctrine but with a twist.

India's Balakot airstrikes, more than the 2006 cross-Line of Control surgical strikes, proved beyond question that Pakistan’s nuclear bluff has been called out, and there exists enough space for a limited sub-conventional retaliatory strike from India if Pakistan aims to terror attacks under its nuclear umbrella. Having busted Pakistan’s nuclear blackmail, India is stating with confidence that it shall no longer stick to strategic restraint.

This isn’t a change in nuclear doctrine, however. Modi had reiterated after the first deterrence patrol by INS Arihant, India’s nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine in November last year, that it indicated a “successful establishment of the nuclear triad…” that “will be an important pillar of global peace and stability.”

In the words of Yusuf T Unjhawala, editor of Defence Forum India and a commentator on defence and strategic affairs, Arihant’s patrol and prime minister's comment suggested that "India, a reluctant nuclear power, was first forced to weaponise its nuclear capability because of the security threats it faced from its nuclear-powered neighbours; and now sees its nuclear weapons as an important element in global strategic stability."

That said, there is a certain danger in cavalier use of the topic of nuclear weapons in campaign rhetoric. Modi might fire the imagination of the electorate and kickstart a debate on national security but he may progressively find it difficult to manage the escalation matrix next time there is a Pakistan-sponsored terror attack.

During the rally in Chittorgarh, Modi invoked Maharana Pratap and Rani Padmini, and said, "Do you want to see a strong Bharat or a helpless Bharat. Do you want an India that gives a befitting reply to Pakistan and terrorists or one that is subdued by it and sits quietly after a terror attack?"

That’s a killer punch in a speech but the problem with this rhetoric is that it hikes up the pressure on a government, squeezes space for a diplomatic resolution of conflicts and makes kinetic response almost inevitable. There is always a danger in this strategy of a conflict spilling over and going into uncharted territories in a destabilized south Asia.

The second issue with nuclear weapons being made into campaign fodder is that it puts India in an unfavourable light. The comments may be interpreted as irresponsible — which goes against India’s carefully managed posture of a responsible nuclear power — and create a false equivalence between India and Pakistan. Modi must consider whether frittering away these gains for electoral rhetoric is worth it.

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Updated Date: Apr 24, 2019 11:04:23 IST