Nuclear Weapons, No First Use and India’s Bharatiya Janata Party


“… no-first-use pledges constitute a declaratory policy without military significance.” – Therese Delpech, French Foreign Office, in The Nuclear Turning Point (1999), 335

So much stock can be placed on a word, or its emphasis. The Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund may well have claimed his Latin was above grammar, but when it comes to the wording of manifestoes, structure and emphasis can be kings. The election manifesto of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is particularly important on a few points. Some of them are unsurprisingly polemical, rubbing various groups, notably Muslims, the wrong way, while encouraging a Hindu-Nationalist line. The stance on Jammu and Kashmir is predictably dangerous and dissatisfying, revealing why bullies tend to be jaundiced, not progressive.

Its leader, Narendra Modi, was chief minister in Gujarat in 2002 when massacre and mayhem broke out between Hindus and Muslims. That blood, at least for some, has dried. Modi’s wily and canny politics has sparked a sense of optimism in a party that, in opposition, was regarded as a walking, talking disaster.1 Indian commentators such as Gucharan Das obsess about the “demographic dividend” and how Modi will use it. If he might be a touch extreme, then so be it. “There will always be a trade-off in values at the ballot box and those who place secularism above demographic dividend are wrong and elitist” (Times of India, Apr 6).

Then there is the issue about what to do with the nuclear stockpile. Such weapons have a perverse quality – they are desired, but are, in a sense, a desirable redundancy. They cannot be used, but they might be used in a fit of unreflective enthusiasm. It is the consummation that should never take place, even if the prospects are advertised in capital letters. It is a eunuch’s mandate.

“No first use” is the outgrowth of such insensible dynamics, a doctrine that gets the strategists more excited than members of the public. New Delhi did, after some pondering in 1998, embrace the position that it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict. The BJP, however, released a rather aggressive cat amongst the pigeons by suggesting in its manifesto that the stance was up for revision as “the strategic gains acquired by India during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime on the nuclear programme have been frittered away by the Congress”. Pakistan, by way of comparison, has no such policy.

Former US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, Richard Boucher2, is jittery about the potential revision. “What does it do for India? Nothing really, although it would introduce a small, probably destabilising, element in the calculations of nuclear adversaries.” Boucher’s theory here is that India’s main threats could hardly trigger a nuclear solution. “India’s nuclear strategy ain’t broke, so don’t fix it.” His reservations are far more a matter of form than substance.

Other diplomats and analysts are also in a flutter, noting India’s strides in the last 10 years in being rehabilitated as a good nuclear citizen. It has signed nuclear pacts with the US, Russia, and France and obtained reactors under deals it would not otherwise have received. Not embracing no first-use is tantamount to unacceptable lunacy. (There are always acceptable and unacceptable forms of nuclear lunacy.) An anonymous Western European diplomat is quoted in the Indian Telegraph3 as being concerned that “a BJP government will attempt any repeat of what it did in 1998”. South Asia expert Michael Kugelman4 fears that such a revision “could well cause stress in Pakistan’s security establishment”.

In one way, the Pakistani position is the more honest one. No first use policies reflect the acceptable hypocrisy of good manners, rather than the authentic appreciation for bad manners. Nuclear armed states may despise each other, but that is not necessarily a reason to use nuclear weapons. No first use, in a sense, is the rhetorical question since no state genuinely wants to be the first one to pull the trigger.

Therein lies the problem. State who embrace such a policy tend to be hedging, qualifying and dithering over an admission that they will use such weapons, even if they just might be the first ones to do so. Boucher himself stated in February 2002, while discussing the US policy on non-first use, that the US “reaffirms that it will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons States parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons except in the case of an invasion or any other attack on the United States, its territories, its armed forces or any other troops, its allies or States towards which it has a security commitment, carried out or sustained by such a non-nuclear weapon State, in association or alliance with a nuclear-weapon State.”5

Such an unforgivably long statement suggests how obtuse non-first use is – it need not necessarily require a nuclear strike to get a nuclear strike in retaliation. It keeps the door open for states to use their doomsday weapons, notwithstanding the faux restraint present in their doctrines.

Where Pakistan fits into this revision throws the no first use idea into sharp relief. Scrutinisers of the manifesto have tried to find clues about how long held resentment will translate into policy should Modi win office. “By avoiding inflammatory rhetoric on Pakistan in the manifesto, the BJP has sought to dampen the speculation around the world that Modi’s leadership of India will lead to an inevitable confrontation with Pakistan” (Indian Express, Apr 7).

It doesn’t pay to jump to standard conclusions on Indian politics. Assessing the next government’s foreign policy direction through bomb and Pakistan is not necessarily useful. The Hindu nationalist party may well rubbish and slander their neighbours and target Muslims, but that doesn’t mean no conversation takes place. The nuclear toting Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the BJP made the journey to Pakistan twice during his six years as Prime Minister. The Congress Party’s Dr. Manmohan Singh, more the flavour of Western governments and advocate of civilian nuclear energy, has not done so once in 10 years in the same office.

The latter’s reticence and reluctance may well be attributed to the shackles placed by the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008. Acts of terrorism do wonders to narrow fields of engagement, even as they demand political figures to transcend them. The Congress Party stance on this is to “deliver on accountability for 26/11 as well as dismantling of the infrastructure of terrorism on Pakistani soil.” The BJP, rather cleverly, embraces “zero tolerance” even as it wishes for “friendly relations” with Pakistan. Perhaps that stance is for the best – Modi and the BJP may well have discovered that dealing with both Pakistan and notions of nuclear doctrine are matters of appearance and theatre more than substance and reality.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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