New Delhi: The Modi government should rid India of its “no first use” doctrine and align its nuclear policies with those of the US, Russia and China, veteran diplomat Jaimini Bhagwati told ThePrint in an interview.
“It was a purely defensive posture we are adopting. Are we less credible than the US? We need to take some decision that will bring short-term pain for long-term gain,” he said.
“We should get rid of it (no first use). I think things have to be fair. If other established nuclear weapon powers do not feel the need to make a declaration that should be your de-facto policy, it doesn’t have to be your de jure policy,” Bhagwati added.
Bhagwati, who retired from the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) in 2013 after stints as India’s envoy to the UK, the European Union, Belgium and Luxembourg, recently published a book on the country’s performance under different prime ministers.
The Promise of India: How Prime Ministers Nehru to Modi Shaped the Nation (1947-2019) was published 20 August.
India’s ‘no first use (NFU)’ policy — a pledge against using nuclear weapons on a nation unless it deploys them against India — became a subject of fervent discussions last month as Defence Minister Rajnath Singh hinted at a possible shift in strategy.
Speaking days after the Modi government abrogated Article 370, Singh said India had always adhered to the principle of ‘no first use’ but “what happens in the future depends on circumstances”.
The comment, which came amid heightened India-Pakistan tension over Kashmir, sparked a debate on whether India should do away with the provision adopted after the 1998 nuclear tests under former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Pakistan clarified earlier this month that it doesn’t have a ‘no first use’ policy.
Testing the waters
In his book, Bhagwati has questioned Vajpayee’s decision to adopt the policy at all.
“Vajpayee need not have announced no first use of nuclear weapons, and it was up to the subsequent Indian governments to revise this position,” he wrote.
According to Bhagwati, the Modi government should get rid of it once and for all, albeit gradually.
“India has to do it gently,” he told ThePrint. “You do not have to do it tomorrow. First, test the waters, have informal conversations around the world. You should not say we are jettisoning our earlier policy of NFU,” Bhagwati added.
“It should be the other way round, we can say we are aligning our nuclear weapons policy with those of the US, Russia etc,” he said.
Bhagwati added that India’s nuclear policy has a provision that NFU may be junked in cases of “supreme national interest” — when it is sure its security is at stake or when it has solid intelligence that India will be attacked by a nuclear weapon.
“There is nothing to prevent you, even with a policy of NFU, to do first use. I think your NFU will have to crumble in the face of this 100 per cent certainty that India will be attacked by a nuclear weapon,” he said.
When India could have shut N-door on Pakistan
According to Bhagwati, India should have positioned itself as a nuclear weapon power in May 1974 itself, when former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi conducted India’s first nuclear test and earned sanctions from the US and other nations.
He agreed that it may not have been possible for Gandhi to take such a bold step at the time, given the US pressure and India’s own domestic challenges, but she could have done it when she came back to power in 1980.
“By 1983-84, if Indira Gandhi had done the second nuclear test, two things would have happened. We could have got economic sanctions but people would have reconciled with a country that was growing, that has a large consumer base and, secondly and most importantly, the door would have been shut very firmly on the face of Pakistan,” Bhagwati said.
“They were not ready in 1983, but by 1998 they were. Yes, (Zulfikar Ali) Bhutto had been talking about it, A.Q. Khan (Pakistani nuclear scientist) and all were working on it but the pressure on Pakistan would have been such they would not have been able to go ahead with it,” he added.
The fact that the Vajpayee government could do it within two months of coming to power in 1998, Bhagwati writes in his book, proves that the “scientific community was ready and waiting for the political green signal”.
That Pakistan conducted its nuclear weapons tests within a fortnight of India’s in May 1998, clearly shows they were also ready and “waiting for an appropriate moment”, he adds.
‘Normalcy should be restored in Kashmir ASAP’
Bhagwati said the Modi government had taken a stand by abrogating Article 370, but should come out sincere in front of the people and bring back normalcy “as soon as possible.”
Over a month since the abrogation, severe communication restrictions remain in place, the situation further exacerbated by a “people’s curfew” among a resentful population.
He added that elections to the newly-formed union territory’s legislature have to be held “soon” and in an “open and free” atmosphere.
“Unfortunately, the people of Kashmir have been cheated for a long time… We have to also see how to make items of daily necessity available to them easily,” he added. “And slowly we have to get there where elections can be held peacefully.”
He also said the Modi government ought to inform other states that the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35A didn’t mean a licence that non-Kashmiris could arrive in J&K and build multi-storey buildings there.
He makes the same argument in his book. “The central government has the responsibility to improve the security situation in Kashmir,” he writes. “And the law and order situation in the state should be consistent with India’s self-image as a liberal and tolerant democracy that allows for the holding of local elections with high percentages of voter participation.”