BJP believes that the strategic gains acquired by India during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime on the nuclear programme have been frittered away by the Congress. Our emphasis was, and remains on, the beginning of a new thrust on framing policies that would serve India’s national interest in the 21st century. We will follow a two-pronged independent nuclear programme, unencumbered by foreign pressure and influence, for civilian and military purposes, especially as nuclear power is a major contributor to India’s energy sector.
BJP will: Study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times. Maintain a credible minimum deterrent that is in tune with changing geostatic realities.
Invest in India’s indigenous Thorium
Technology Programme.”
The BJP’s nuclear vision in the manifesto above though concise has occasioned comment and consternation particularly in the western world. Does it herald a shift away from the “no first use” pledge enunciated by the BJP government when India went nuclear in 1998, coupled with the threat of massive retaliation if India was subjected to a nuclear attack? How will this effect Chinese and Pakistani calculations? Is the strategic calculus in South Asia and its stability about to enter a more uncertain phase?
This is a manifesto and not yet government policy. Already, Indian strategists and some BJP public relations officials are hastening to defuse criticism by making this point, adding that no radical shift is expected. But let’s assume that there might be a policy shift and “no first use” is dropped. Would that shift in form really change the substance of India’s current nuclear capabilities and intentions? One cannot speak for China, but would it make any difference to Pakistan targeted by 90% of India’s military assets? The mask has slipped, however momentarily, making it worthwhile to examine these questions.
The strategic discourse on South Asia has revolved around three dynamics. First of all, the ever present desire of western countries, with some concurrence from the USSR/Russia, to build up India as a strategic partner and counter to China- giving India a free pass on nuclear issues. Secondly, the drive by India to claim the moral high ground on all issues, ranging from non alignment to nuclear disarmament. Thirdly the reactive efforts by Pakistan, initially to seek to prevent South Asia going nuclear, forced to catch up to restore strategic balance when that did not work, and proposing nuclear restraint when both countries went nuclear, without a positive response from India or support from the international community.
“No First Use,” is not subscribed to by the US, NATO, UK, France and Russia. Only China and India maintain such a policy. It is at best a declaratory position whose value is based on a potential adversary’s assessment of the good faith behind it. China’s no first use policy which has no caveats is generally considered dependable but India sets no store by it and doing otherwise would run counter to its argument that it cannot reach arms control agreements with Pakistan because it needs to build up to face China.
India’s own No First Use doctrine has been increasingly hedged by exceptions. Any form of WMD attack on India or its forces where ever they are, inside or outside India, would lead to a massive nuclear response. A high Indian national security official addressing the Indian Defence College seemed to suggest that it would not apply to states possessing nuclear weapons.
In August 1992, the Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan signed an agreement on chemical weapons pledging that both countries would never under any circumstances develop, produce or otherwise acquire chemical weapons. However, unlike Pakistan, when India ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention in October 1997, it did so as one of the world’s few possessor states declaring over a thousand tons of chemical weapons material .
For Pakistan’s policy makers, whether or not India keeps to its no first use declaration makes little difference. They look at India’s growing conventional and strategic capabilities. Probably the BJP’s objective of strengthening the DRDO will also interest them. Nuclear strategy walks on two legs: nuclear doctrine and the nuclear capabilities that give it substance and credibility; fissile material and its production: land, air and sea launched delivery systems and their platforms, as well as the integrating command and control systems which also mesh with conventional forces. But behind the tangibles is the intangible, the capability for deterrence, or does it have an unstated coercive undertone as well?
The DRDO is already carrying forward one of the most ambitious and longstanding integrated missile programmes worldwide. The technological range and growth of India’s strategic weapons programme, indirectly encouraged by the West and directly by Russia, is already far out of synch with the policy pronouncements of the Congress government in favour of regional and international peace and security. A heightened programme would have its own consequences.
No First Use/ No – No First Use
India has used its no first use doctrine to attempt to project that it is more reasonable than Pakistan. A country that does not subscribe to no first use does not mean that it is committed to the first use of nuclear weapons but holds out this possibility to deter any major attack and therefore is an “in extremis” position. The policy response of Pakistan has been to counter with the offer to complete negotiations for an agreement on, “No first use of force,”- a no war pact -as first offered by India in 1949 on which some work was done but then lapsed.
Pakistan’s position has been summed up in statements by two of its diplomats, the first in 2002 when a massive Indian troop build up menaced at the border: “We have not said we will use nuclear weapons, we have not said that we will not use nuclear weapons. We have the means to deter aggression and we will not neutralize it by any doctrine of No First Use.” The second a decade later: “The problem with ‘No First Use’ in asymmetric situations is that it can become a license for conventional first use/aggression.”
The manifesto has been a reality check for the international community. Where do we go from here. The BJP, if elected, modulating India’s nuclear doctrine is a secondary issue. More important is to work towards better relations in South Asia, also highlighted by a recent New York Times editorial which calls for arms control initiatives between the two countries. Improved relations would reduce nuclear tensions and lead to nuclear restraint and would be in line with the manifesto which acknowledges that political stability, progress and peace in the region are essential for South Asia’s growth and development. The BJP should build on the arms control objectives agreed to with Pakistan by its predecessor BJP government under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who negotiated the Lahore MOU with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999. Talks on Nuclear and Conventional CBMs foreseen by the Lahore MOU have been held off and on since 2004 but since 2008, Indian reluctance has frozen any progress. Time for both countries to move forward.

n    The writer is a former Pakistani diplomat.