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Did Parrikar nuke India's bid to join the NSG with his 'no first use' remarks?

Sadiq Naqvi | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:39 IST

Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar's statement on the nuclear doctrine has opened up a Pandora's box.

In a book release event on 10 November, Parikkar said, "We are a responsible nuclear power and I will not use it irresponsibly", instead of affirming the 'no first use' policy, the bulwark of India's nuclear doctrine.

The NSG bid

The comments sparked a debate for they came at a time when India is looking at the permanent membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which is meeting in Vienna this week to deliberate on India's bid.

Also read - Deliberate strategy? Parrikar just questioned India's 'no first use' nuke policy

India is a non-signatory to the Non Proliferation Treaty, which China has been using to stonewall India's case for the NSG membership. In any case, the meet in Vienna may not lead to India entering the elite nuclear club since some countries including China remain opposed to the idea, despite aggressive Indian diplomacy.

China remain opposed to India's bid to join the NSG despite aggressive Indian diplomacy

While many commentators say that these were Parikkar's personal comments as the Ministry of Defense later clarified, the comments have, coming from the mouth of the defense minister, a member of the Nuclear Command Authority, still raised serious questions.

If at all, there was a need to undermine the country's stated nuclear doctrine.

A casual remark?

Rakesh Sood, the former Ambassador, says the comments would not impact India's bid for a permanent membership of the NSG, since the India has a clear-cut position on the issue, and the doctrine remains as it is.

C Rajamohan, who heads Carnegie Endowment India, too, pointed out that it may have been a casual remark by the defense minister.

However, the jury is out on the nuclear doctrine, which was last re-stated by former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. BJP, in its 2014 Manifesto, too, had stated that it may re-examine the doctrine.

An ambiguous doctrine

There is a belief that Parikkar's statement is in line with that of others in the security establishment who want some ambiguity in the nuclear doctrine.

Pakistan, the country's belligerent neighbour in the West, and a nuclear power, does not believe in India's 'no first use' policy as it is.

Rear Admiral K Raja Menon says ambiguity on the doctrine may not be a bad thing. As the neighbour should not be sure of whether India will use the weapons first or not.

However, not everyone agrees. KC Singh, the former ambassador says, "Any change in the nuclear doctrine cannot be done by subtle hints. It requires a proper approval of the Cabinet Committee on Security and the Prime Minister." Singh explained how it is important to have a clear doctrine and not operate through ambiguity and that any change should precede proper deliberations.

Re-examining India's doctrine

The 'no first use' policy shows Pakistan as an irresponsible nuclear power, since it has threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons against India. Moreover, experts say, the moment India talks of using nuclear weapons responsibly, the way Parikkar articulated his 'personal statement' would give them a handle to attack India on the issue. And how does one do 'signalling' in case of hostilities if you believe in 'ambiguity'? Moreover, Pakistan is not the only nuclear-armed state in the vicinity; there is the fear of China in the East.

Sood, who has served as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's special envoy on disarmament and non-proliferation, says the doctrine does not need any change. "I believe it is fine," Sood pointed out while explaining how doctrines are a result of deep deliberations and can't be tinkered by changing a word, here or there.

There is a need to reexamine the doctrine, albeit not on the issue of 'no first use': Raja Menon

Vishnu Bhagwat, the former chief of naval staff, says the doctrine needs to be discussed rationally and scientifically, since it has not kept pace with the changing realities of South Asia, especially the new developments in the region.

"It was an off the cuff thing which was done by Brijesh Mishra and his team. It need to be re-examined," Bhagwat says. However, the former Navy Chief pointed out that doctrines need deeper deliberations and cannot be discussed in media forums.

Raja Menon also pointed out how there was a need to reexamine the doctrine, albeit not on the issue of 'no first use'. He explains how the doctrine speaks of a massive retaliation even to the use of Tactical Nuclear Weapons, something which is not credible and needs to change. While India has tactically not come out with its nuclear arsenal, Pakistan claims to have developed tactical nukes, also called battlefield nuclear weapons, which can be used in a specific area.

Admiral KK Nayyar, the Chairman of the National Maritime Foundation, however, disagrees with the idea and says it is a dangerous idea to suggest that use of Tactical Nuclear Weapons would only invite a minor response is a 'highly irresponsible' thing to articulate in your nuclear doctrine. And that it encourages the use of such weapons, and could take away the deterrence. The US did not use such weapons even when it lost 57,000 personnel in the Vietnam war or even in Afghanistan, the longest war it fought, Nayyar reasons.

Edited by Aleesha Matharu

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First published: 11 November 2016, 9:43 IST