As India does not have a formally-declared national security strategy, the public pronouncements of Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the Lok Sabha election rallies have given us an ‘insight’ into his ‘strategic thoughts’.
And if candidate Modi rides to victory on 23 May, the BJP will be measured against all these grand pronouncements and promises.
Addressing an electoral rally at Barmer in Rajasthan on 21 April, Modi said, “India has stopped the policy of getting scared by Pakistan’s threats. Every day, they (Pakistan) would make claims about having nuclear weapons. Even the media would bring out reports about Pakistan having nuclear weapons. So, what do we have? Are we saving them (nuclear weapons) for Diwali?”
India’s nuclear strategy, which evolved in 2003, is based on ‘no first use’ principle. Against its quest for permanent membership, India was given a unique ‘waiver’ by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Based on its ‘responsible conduct’ with respect to nuclear weapons and international non-proliferation norms despite not having signed the prerequisite Non-Proliferation Treaty and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, India is a member of three multilateral export control regimes – the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group.
Modi’s Barmer speech was the first time a Prime Minister of India spoke about the ‘usability’ of nuclear weapons. One does not know if the PM signalled a change in India’s nuclear strategy or merely sent a ‘signal’ to Pakistan, but the Diwali statement virtually puts us in the same league as North Korea and Pakistan, and neutralises all our efforts to project ourselves as a responsible nuclear power. Countries that oppose India’s membership of the NSG would have surely taken note of this remark.
It may be ironical but the most interesting fallout of this statement was Pakistan’s Director General Inter-Services Public Relations Asif Ghafoor’s press conference on 29 April, where he almost spoke like an Indian spokesperson on the issue of nuclear weapons. By design or default, the space for conflict below the nuclear threshold got expanded.
Ladder of escalation
The Modi government has been criticised for not going up the ladder of escalation after the 2016 surgical strikes and the aerial encounter on 27 February to force compellence on Pakistan. At a rally in Patan, Gujarat, on 22 April, Modi responded to this: “A top US official had said that Modi had readied 12 missiles for the attack. Fortunately, Pakistan announced that the pilot (Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman) would be sent back to India. Otherwise, it would have been ‘qatal ki raat’ (a night of bloodshed)”. Modi’s remarks – the PM indirectly referred to his plans to use Brahmos cruise missiles or Prithvi series of missiles with conventional warheads – received thunderous applause.
I am sure the PM must have taken Pakistan’s retaliatory capabilities into account. How the specific warning was conveyed is a matter of speculation, but the fact is that our pilot came back with or without international intervention.
Modi has left no doubt about his intent. The only issue now is the creation of an overwhelming qualitative and quantitative edge in ground, air and sea-based precision-guided missiles.
At a rally in Meerut on 29 March, the PM lauded India’s successful launch of an anti-satellite missile and linked it with his latest nom de guerre – chowkidar – when he said that India was now capable of doing “chowkidari in space”.
He was probably apprising the public of his plans to ensure that India is ready should there be space warfare. Given a second chance, Modi is most likely to create a space command.
A strong military
At a number of rallies, the PM has spoken about the need for strong security forces to fight off internal and external threats. He also highlighted that India is facing terror threats and a lot of money is being spent on security, which otherwise would have been spent on welfare measures for the poor.
But Modi surely knows that the defence budget as a percentage of the GDP in the five years of his government has been the lowest since 1963 except for 2007.
Vote for your military
Modi urged first-time voters to vote for the soldiers who carried out the Balakot airstrikes and those killed in action at Pulwama. “This time, your vote should be cast for the country, for the country alone… for a strong government,” he said.
The way ahead
No matter who comes to power for the next five years, there is going to be no escaping the national security reforms that have been languishing for the last two decades. The Congress has made concrete proposals in its manifesto for reforming the National Security Council, bringing about tri-service integration under the Chief of Defence Staff and modernising the armed forces. National security is the core issue of the BJP’s election campaign.
I have serious reservations about the exploitation of national security issues and the armed forces for electoral gains. The silver lining is that national security reforms have finally become a core issue among the Indian public as well. In future, bluff and bluster will not do.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.