As Pakistan raised Kashmir at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said that India’s “no first use” nuclear policy may be up for review in the future. It “depends on the circumstances”, he said.
Singh was speaking at Pokhran, where India conducted nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998, announcing its status as a nuclear power. His comments should not come as a surprise. Over the last couple of years, much of the old consensus that held together India’s defence doctrine, especially with regard to Pakistan, has unravelled. But they do nothing for India’s credibility as a responsible nuclear power committed to keeping the peace on the subcontinent.
For decades, India’s defence policy was characterised by “strategic restraint”, rooted in the worldview of Nehru and Gandhi. It implied a moral aversion to the use of force, a determination to hold fire in the face of provocation to pursue more long-term goals of stability. This policy grew increasingly strained after the nuclear tests of 1998 and the ensuing conflagrations: the Kargil War of 1999 and Operation Parakram, after the 2001 Parliament attack, where Indian troops massed at the Line of Control tried to stare down the Pakistani army.
From 2002, the Indian Army is said to have developed the “Cold Start” doctrine, or a strategy of quick, limited strikes across the border followed by rapid escape from hostile territory. For years, this doctrine was cloaked in official denial. If the military conducted covert strikes, the Indian political establishment kept up the posture of strategic restraint.
That came to an end in 2016, when the Indian army announced it had launched so-called surgical strikes on militant launchpads along the Line of Control and the political establishment made it an electoral trump card. With the Balakot air strike in February 2019, when the government claimed to have killed hundreds of Jaish-e-Mohammad operatives across the border, restraint was officially replaced by belligerence.
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While Pakistan has condemned Singh’s remarks as “irresponsible” and “unfortunate”, its own position does not create much confidence of stability. For years, Pakistan has thrived on ambiguity in its nuclear policy. It has refused to commit to no first use, although it declared a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing. The key strategic goals of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme are deterrence and, if that fails, denying India victory in a war. Analysts point out that increasing the salience of nuclear threats has been an important part of Pakistan’s defence policy, especially as it cannot match India in conventional capabilities.
Should India abandon its no first use policy, a key safety valve for stability in the subcontinent would be lost. This is not the first time the Indian political establishment has grown restive with the policy since it was formally articulated in 2003, but never has the support for sabre rattling seemed greater. As the government assumes a posture of aggression, restraint is mistaken for weakness, dialogue and de-escalation for capitulation.
Lost in the din is decades of Indian moral superiority – which served it well at international forums – as a nuclear power whose chief concern was peace, no matter what the provocation from across the border.