Rajnath Singh’s Big Bang
Not a single day goes these days when Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and his lackeys do not remind India and rest of the world that Pakistan is a nuclear weapon power and that any war against India will become a nuclear war. This “nuclear threat” by Pakistan is not something that followed the recent constitutional changes in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir that India made. Imran Khan has been telling loudly his nuclear prowess ever since becoming Pakistan’s Prime Minister. His predecessors were little more sophisticated in asserting this power of Pakistan, though in concrete terms they were no different. After all, the Pakistani Army had declared a long ago that given India’s superiority in conventional arms, Pakistan would use nuclear weapons in the battle field against India.
What have been the Indian reactions? Speaking on the death anniversary of former Prime Minister AB Vajpayee on 16 August 2019 at Pokhran, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said at Pokhran: “Till today, our nuclear policy is ‘no first use. ’What happens in the future depends on the circumstances.” Of course, Singh is not the first defence minister to have said on NFU. In November 2016, late Manohar Parrikar had once counter-questioned a reporter why the country’s policy of “No First Use” of its nuclear weapons should not change. But the difference between Parrikar and Singh is that while the former had made it pretty clear that his was a personal opinion and had nothing to do with the government, the latter has not given any clarification to what he said. Singh was not speaking off the cuff. He reiterated his statement in a tweet after his remarks at Pokhran.
However, all this does not mean that a change in India’s NFU policy has already taken place. What Singh’s statement suggests is that a country’s nuclear policy is a dynamic process; it cannot remain static for all time to come. This, in itself, is a great contribution of our Defence Minister on a vital topic, a topic that even Prime Minister Narendra Modi was very careful to remain ambiguous on during the electioneering for the general elections early this year.
It may be noted that at an election rally in Rajasthan Prime Minister Modi had said that India had not developed nuclear weapons for ‘Diwali”. Predictably, his critics, not all of them necessarily his political opponents, had accused the Prime Minister of being irresponsible by talking of a highly sensitive security issue in a public rally.
However, in my considered view, if Modi’s remark at the rally is seen in its totality, he had not deviated from the official stance of India on its nuclear weapons. “Every other day they (Pakistan) used to say ‘we have nuclear button, we have nuclear button’. What do we have then? Have we kept it for Diwali?” This was exactly what Modi had said. And that was no deviation of our existing nuclear position. Modi’s speech should be seen in a particular context of the Balakot- air strike. So far, the Indian refrain was that going inside Pakistani territory or for that matter across the Line of Control, to pursue the terrorists, would be dangerous since Pakistan all the time was threatening of using its nuclear weapons against India. Because, unlike India, Pakistan does not have the NFU (No First Use) policy pertaining to is nukes. The Modi government had now called this Pakistani bluff. While India will never be the first to use the nuclear weapons, it is not afraid Pakistan’s nukes and that if at all Pakistan uses them first then India will retaliate massively with its own. I think this was what the Prime Minister pointed out, nothing more.
On the other hand, what Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has said is substantially different. He was not talking of the massive nuclear retaliation by India in the event of being hit by a nuclear weapon by an adversary like Pakistan as per our existing policy of not being first to use a nuclear weapon. He very clearly said that while the NFU (no first use) remains India’s policy at the moment, it cannot be guaranteed that in future it will remain so. I view this as an extremely important policy statement, coming officially from no lesser a person than Rajnath Singh. And it was very timely.
Importantly, India’s draft nuclear doctrine in 1999 (strictly speaking, India does not have a formal nuclear doctrine as such; what it has is a “draft” doctrine) underwent changes in four years under the same government led by Atal Behari Vajpayee. In the clarifications that were given in 2003, there were two important changes that were made to the draft doctrine of 1999. The draft doctrine had said: “Any nuclear attack on India and its forces shall result in punitive retaliation with nuclear weapons to inflict damage unacceptable to the aggressor.” The 2003 clarifications said: “Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage to the aggressor.” The emphasis here should be given to the addition of the word “massive”.
The second important change in the 2003 clarifications was that a new scenario was added under which India would retaliate with nuclear weapons, and that was the attack through biological or chemical weapons on India or on Indian forces anywhere.
What emerges from the above is that India’s nuclear weapons posture, after the country went officially nuclear in 1998, did undergo changes during the Vajpayee regime itself. The point is that beliefs and principles are not immutable. Nations and their leaderships change with the efflux of time. And circumstances require their national doctrines to be revisited, reviewed and recast if deemed necessary.
Viewed thus, our NFU policy really needed a healthy debate and the defence Minister has done well to start it. The United States or for that matter other western nuclear powers such as Britain and France do not have the NFU policy. Russia, which initially had NFU pledge, has withdrawn it long ago. China, another country that professed NFU policy, is now saying that its NFU would not apply against countries that are in possession of the Chinese territory. That means that China’s NFU does not apply to India as it claims over our lands in Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh.
That leaves Pakistan, our other major adversary. But Pakistan too does not believe in NFU. It has developed “Nasr” ballistic missiles with a range of 60 km that is capable of carrying nuclear warheads. These have been specifically built with the intention of targeting not only Indian cities but also Indian military formations on the battlefield.
The concept of NFU has other problems as well. For one, imagine that there is a conventional war between India and Pakistan (or for that matter China), and Indian forces target at military establishments within the enemy territory. They do not know which of these establishments are nuclear or nonnuclear and in the process of their operations, they hit at an enemy target that turns out to be a nuclear one and the consequent results are strategically horrible. Will it mean that India did not observe its NFU pledge?
For another, imagine also a situation when the Indian forces engaged in conventional wars simultaneously against China and Pakistan find it difficult to carry on. And here, as the situation challenges the very integrity of the country, should one not exercise the nuclear option? After all, we have already modified our nuclear posture in the events of chemical and biological attacks. Why should then we tie our hands with the NFU when faced with multi-fronted attacks on our territories or forces?
Thirdly, a review is also due on the concept of our “massive” nuclear retaliation when attacked by nuclear weapons, particularly when Pakistan is openly preparing to use what it says tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) through “Nasr” missiles against India’s superior conventional forces. Now, suppose, one of our Army’s tank columns is attacked by Pakistan’s TNW. Should then India go for a massive retaliation to destroy the whole of Karachi or Lahore? Will not that be highly disproportionate and unethical? If so, should India not go for a proportionate retaliation with its own TNW? This is all the more so when India is capable of, with precision-strike weapons, missiles, airborne, and space-based intelligence assets, locating and destroying a meaningful part of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. But in order to do so, it would almost certainly have to act pre-emptively. And this requires India to give up its NFU policy.
Of course, if we really go with our TNWs, then there will be a new problem. By their very nature, the TNWs and their eventual uses are better determined on the spot, that is, on the battlefield itself, by the military commanders concerned. How then will that go with our strict provision that it is only the Prime Minister who will decide when and where to use our nuclear weapons?
All these are very tricky but vital questions. But answers to them cannot wait anymore.
By Prakash Nanda