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Deliberate strategy? Parrikar questions India's 'no first use' nuke policy

Achin Vanaik | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:39 IST

That Manohar Parrikar as Defence Minister should use his high office to question the No First Use (NFU) commitment that is part of India's declared nuclear doctrine, and then claim that his criticism is in his personal capacity, should come as no surprise and in both cases is a deliberate stratagem.

In its pre-election manifesto, the BJP said it would 'revisit' that doctrine. As on a host of other issues where chief ministers and cabinet ministers have made the most outrageous statements, the purpose is to make legitimate and acceptable in public discourse what was once considered out of bounds.

Also read - Why say we won't use nuclear weapons first: Manohar Parrikar

This is to help create as the new 'common sense' a much more belligerent (and intolerant) conception of nationalism and of the BJP/Sangh as the only 'true' guardian of the nation.

A desired and required declaration

Before coming to the hypocrisies and deceits that are part of the Indian nuclear doctrine even with its NFU commitment and also of its actual preparations on the nuclear front, let us first understand why, as a matter of abstract principle, a NFU declaration by nuclear weapons states (NWSs) is desirable.

If your only reason for having nuclear weapons (NWs) is to have the capacity to retaliate against a nuclear power by bombing its population centres to cause 'massive unacceptable damage' and thus deter an initial enemy strike, then this places certain limits on the numbers of NWs you need against your designated foe(s).

BJP legitimises arguments once considered out of bounds by slowly adding them to public discourse

If all NWSs were to declare NFU then this would mean that all nuclear powers are saying that the only reason they have nuclear weapons is for retaliation against one another.

In which case, it follows logically enough that all NWSs can much more easily agree on an agreed timetable to make proportionate reductions in each of their nuclear arsenals (larger to begin with for the US and Russia) and then in a more graduated sequence, equal proportionate reductions for all.

Such a process means not only ending, but also actually reversing the global nuclear arms race and moving towards the possibility of total nuclear disarmament.

No wonder in pre-Pokharan II days, India used to call for just such a joint and universal NFU declaration by all NWSs.

Protect and destroy

The NFU commitment is also always accompanied by what is called a 'negative security assurance' (NSA) to non-nuclear weapons states (NNWSs); that is, a parallel commitment not to use nuclear weapons at all against NNWSs.

Only India and China currently provide such commitments of NFU and its associated 'negative security assurance'.

The NFU commitment is accompanied by a parallel agreement to not use nukes against non-nuclear states

But who among our pro-nuclear Indian strategic experts will point out that the Chinese commitments are superior to that of India because China's 'negative security assurance' to all NNWSs is unconditional, while India reserves the right to use NWs even against NNWSs if they are aligned with a nuclear power, or if they possess biological or chemical weapons although these are simply not comparable to the destructive power of NWs and can even be somewhat protected against?

The point is that China and Pakistan are to be portrayed as irresponsible 'nuclear baddies' while India is supposedly a responsible 'nuclear goodie' that nevertheless will make no such criticism of the most irresponsible of all nuclear powers - the US - whose strategic support on various fronts is considered vital for the 'national interest'.

South Asian context

The hypocrisies do not stop there. Pakistan's nuclear preparations were always India-centric. That's why both before and after 1998, Pakistan repeatedly made proposals for the mutual denuclearisation of the two countries by a bilateral agreement, by simultaneously joining the Non-Proliferation treaty (NPT), or by establishing a South Asian nuclear weapons free zone (NWFZ).

India invariably cited the Chinese nuclear threat as the reason for refusing such proposals and criticises Pakistan for not itself having an NFU showing its deep distrust for India despite the latter's own declaration of this.

But China had its bomb in 1964. It has an NFU and a 'negative security assurance' for countries like India which only went nuclear in 1998. This was despite no attempts by China to nuclearly blackmail it before then and even after significant improvement in bilateral relations after the end of the Cold War.

Nonetheless, one justification made for India going nuclear is that India could not trust China despite its NFU and 'negative security assurance' commitments. Why then should Pakistan trust India's NFU? Parikkar's statement certainly doesn't help.

Moreover, China and India do not practice what they preach since the logic of an NFU is that you need only have a limited arsenal which precludes targeting an enemy's military installations (which both do) as distinct from population centres. Nor do you need to develop potential first strike delivery systems cruise missiles flying under radar or deployment for tactical purposes.

One certainly doesn't have to go for full-scale triadic deployment which both countries are doing.

Strategic risks

As a small but still meaningful diplomatic gesture what could be done (but won't be) is for India and China to jointly make a call on other NWSs to commit to a NFU posture.

But India certainly, will not risk irritating or alienating the US by pursuing such a measure. As for India and Pakistan, the latter has on various occasions called for a No War Pact to be signed between the two.

Pakistan has on various occasions called for a No War Pact to be signed with India

New Delhi says this is not on because this government in particular insists that cross border illegal raids by non-state actors from the Pakistan side are acts of war, albeit covert and proxy.

But accepted international law makes an important distinction between such acts and 'war' - an invasion in force by the official armed forces of another country whose political and legal implications and meaning is of another order altogether.

One way of moving forward diplomatically would be for a mutual accommodation linking what Pakistan and India each want, i.e., acceptance by India of a No War Pact connected to Pakistan's acceptance of its own NFU.

Given the thinking of the Defense Minister no less, and that of most of our South Asian 'strategic experts', this will not happen. Meanwhile the regional and global nuclear arms races will continue.

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First published: 11 November 2016, 3:09 IST