India’s No-First-Use Policy: A Reality Check

By Sanaa Alvira, WIIS Member

On the first anniversary of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s death in August 2019, India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh paid homage to the former Prime Minister in Pokhran, the site of India’s first nuclear detonation. Addressing the media, and subsequently reiterating his statements in a tweet, Singh said, “…India has strictly adhered to this doctrine [No-First-Use — NFU]. What happens in future depends on the circumstances.” While India’s commitment to NFU has a long history of debate and analysis, Singh’s statements caused quite a stir in academia and diplomatic circles alike, sparking a debate on whether India was reconsidering changing its long held support of NFU. After all, Rajnath Singh is only the second defence minister — following the late Manohar Parrikar, who openly questioned the relevance of India’s NFU (albeit only in a personal capacity) — to explicitly comment on this aspect of India’s nuclear doctrine. An article co-authored by Christopher Clary and Vipin Narang calls into question India’s commitment to NFU, analyzing whether New Delhi is now shifting its nuclear strategy to permit consideration of pre-emptive counterforce options, especially with regard to Pakistan. The authors’ substantive article presents an intriguing analysis of how India is acquiring nuclear capabilities that far exceed what is needed for credible minimum deterrence — indicating a shift in India’s overall nuclear posture and its policy of NFU.

The Agni- III Missile during the Republic Day parade, New Delhi, 2008.

In the present situation, such assertions on India’s revision of its NFU policy are not without merit. As Ankit Panda argues in his take on India’s NFU in The Diplomat,the Modi government has not shied away from bold decisions and surprise announcements: the February 2019 air strikes against Pakistan, the anti-satellite missile (ASAT) test the following month in March 2019, and more recently, the controversial abrogation of Article 370 on Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019, which saw the state lose its special status in India and was reduced to two Union Territories. It is possible that Singh’s comments in Pokhran were carefully planned and worded as part of the Modi government’s broader strategy to signal a shift in India’s nuclear policy to meet current challenges, as is the view currently debated among scholars.  However, it cannot be ignored that a revision of the NFU policy would have multiple implications, the least of which would be a severe dent in India’s status as a responsible nuclear power — a successful strategy carefully nurtured by Indian diplomacy for over a decade. More imminently, a shift in this policy (or even a perception of shift) would confirm China and Pakistan’s suspicions over India’s actual commitment to NFU, potentially affecting their arsenal build-up.

So, could India really be gearing up towards an NFU policy revision? This seems unlikely. India’s NFU policy has always incorporated an element of ambiguity, with former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon even interpreting India’s nuclear strategy to include pre-emption. Menon argued that India’s existing doctrine had a certain “grey area,” and a pre-emptive attack against an imminent threat was certainly in line with India’s NFU doctrine, given how this doctrine “was more flexible than widely believed.” If Singh’s statements are to be read as a signal to Pakistan, then following Menon’s interpretation, there is no actual shift in policy at all. Even otherwise, nullifying the NFU policy would only make sense if India faced a severe non-nuclear threat — for using nuclear weapons against a nuclear threat would most certainly result in retaliation hence, such weapons are only meant as a deterrent,and thus, NFU. Rajesh Rajagopalan explains brilliantly about how India’s NFU is uniquely suited to her circumstances, and “that if there’s a threat to India’s NFU policy, it comes from the more ideological opposition it faces, not from any careful reassessment of its strategic logic.”

The importance of this debate can be highlighted not only by the continued engagementof distinguished practitioners in their respective fields, but also by the potential security implications and other challenges this would have in the continually developing Asian geopolitical region. In all practicality, it seems unlikely that India would abandon its image as a ‘responsible nuclear power’ over a reassessment of its NFU doctrine, especially given that this policy has been a vital factor in the eventual implementation of the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, 2005. Rajnath Singh’s statements could be read to indicate the government’s acceptance of including pre-emption against an imminent threat in line with the NFU doctrine. What exactly could count as an imminent threat (an attack on Indian territory, or on Indian forces elsewhere, the use of chemical and biological weapons, or simply, a massive military attack), and how the nature of these threats varies according to circumstances, is what is currently ambiguous. To gauge whether verbal statements by highly ranked officials in a state considered a potential adversary would qualify as an imminent threat depends upon the circumstances. The very fact that Singh’s important comments have not yet been followed up by an official government declaration adds a layer of ambiguity to India’s nuclear posture — but not to the extent that it would entirely reconsider its resolve to NFU. Nonetheless, such an argument is by no means set in stone, and it is entirely possible that India may abandon its commitment to NFU in the distant future. At present, India is far from that (despite recent border tensions with China), and it has continued to maintain its pledge to NFU and a limited number of nuclear warheads, despite being neighbours with two nuclear weapon states. This would highlight, as one hopes, India’s continued commitment to nuclear peace.

Sanaa Alvira has recently completed her postgraduate studies in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Previously, she studied at St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi. She is interested in arms control and disarmament studies, and her current research focuses on nuclear diplomacy in the Asian region.