A day after India’s 73rd Independence Day, the Narendra Modi government threatened Pakistan with the possibility of a nuclear attack if it scales up cross-border terrorism and militancy against India. That is essentially what the last eight words of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s tweet conveyed – while India has hitherto “strictly adhered to” the No First Use doctrine, “what happens in future depends on the circumstances”.
Welcome to Modi’s new security doctrine. And take a deep breath.
As ambiguous and casual as it may seem at first glance, it is a signal to the Pakistani military-jihadi complex that India could well strike first with nuclear weapons in a war triggered by Pakistani cross-border terrorism.
But while abandoning the nuclear No First Use (NFU) doctrine might appear more muscular in popular psychology, it is the NFU itself that is more badass. If you are prepared to wipe out a whole country in retaliation to them using a low-yield nuke against your troops, can anyone be more badass than you?
There’s more to Rajnath’s message
My instinctive response to Rajnath Singh’s tweet was to dismiss it as an off-the-cuff remark that got instantly amplified in the longstanding debate over India’s No First Use doctrine. Reflecting on it over the weekend, and putting it in the context of the Balakot airstrikes, Modi’s election speeches on nuclear weapons, and the prospect of unrest in post-Article 370 Kashmir, it now appears to me that Rajnath Singh’s message was deliberate, the words were carefully chosen, and the intended recipient was Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex.
And here’s the logic behind it: for the past two decades, India lacked effective options to deter cross-border terrorists protected by Pakistan’s nuclear umbrella. A conventional retaliation could be threatened only after high-profile attacks such as those on Parliament in 2001 and in Mumbai on 26/11. But because of the risk — well advertised by Pakistan — that an actual Indian retaliation could invite low-yield nuclear weapons’ use on Indian forces or cities, New Delhi stopped short of war.
This changed in February 2019, when Modi ordered a conventional retaliatory response inside Pakistani territory following an attack on a military convoy in Pulwama. This set a new benchmark — binding Modi and his successors to respond in a similar or stronger manner. Unlike this year, situations in future could escalate and the Indian armed forces might have to take the war into Pakistan, rubbing against Pakistan’s nuclear red lines.
This is where Rajnath Singh’s statement comes in: if Pakistan were to threaten a nuclear strike, or if New Delhi were to believe that a strike was in the offing, India would strike first. The Modi government appears to have calculated that the fear of an Indian nuclear strike will raise Pakistan’s costs of cross-border terrorism, thus deterring its use.
Part of Modi’s security doctrine
To be clear, no one in the government has said as much, and this is entirely my assessment sitting 2,000 km away from New Delhi. Yet, the contours of a Modi security doctrine are emerging: from publicised surgical strikes across the Line of Control (LoC) to airstrikes deep into Pakistani territory to an implicit nuclear threat, the Modi government seeks to contain Pakistani adventurism through a readiness to use force at all levels. A lot of scholars have strung doctrines around Modi’s neck; but whatever you might think of it, this is the real deal.
Obviously, this is an extremely risky approach. India has shown itself capable of absorbing all the terrorism and militancy that Pakistan has thrown its way over the years and still doing well. So, it is not immediately apparent that India needs to adopt a path that leads to nuclear crises at worst and demands more resources for running a nuclear arms race at best. The Modi government, it would seem, has decided that the risks and the costs are worth it.
There’s a reason why NFU exists
The biggest problem with this bold new approach is that it will work only to the extent that the Pakistanis believe India’s threats are credible. Pakistan might calculate that it can take the risk, make some tactical innovations, and continue the proxy war in other ways. Fear of a pre-emptive strike might cause the Pakistanis to put more weapons on hair-trigger alert, disperse them more and devolve the authority to launch the weapons. This creates more risk for India and for other countries.
There’s another big problem: it is absurd to believe that a pre-emptive first strike can destroy Pakistan’s ability to hit back. No combination of a comprehensive first strike and ballistic missile defence can ensure Indian cities are safe. If it was about mutually assured destruction (MAD) during the Cold War, it is about mutually unacceptable damage (MUD) between India and Pakistan. It took the United States and the Soviet Union decades, hundreds of billions of dollars, and thousands of warheads to realise that a nuclear war is unwinnable, and nuclear weapons are meant to deter such a war. The first generation of India’s nuclear strategists learned this lesson well, which is why we have a No First Use doctrine. The next generation ought not to make the mistakes its predecessors avoided.
If the above assessment is right, then as scholars Vipin Narang and Christopher Clary have argued for some time, the No First Use doctrine has effectively been severely qualified — in that it doesn’t apply, at least, to Pakistan. But before the Modi government irrevocably proceeds along this path, it should consider the alternative: a Global No First Use (GNFU) treaty that will bind all nuclear powers. To the extent that such a treaty has similar effect — preventing Pakistan from threatening nuclear attack — it may be a more effective, less risky and cheaper option. Moreover, if GNFU does not come about, India can always do what it must do.
The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.
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