Many norms have been transgressed and several thresholds crossed in the ongoing Lok Sabha election campaign, whether in communal and sectarian polarisation of Indians or the politicisation of the armed forces. Now another threshold has been crossed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his most recent remarks on India’s nuclear weapons delivered in a threatening tone.
National security has become an overarching issue, but not in terms of pledges to plug the many and glaring gaps in our security architecture and defence preparedness, but to deflect attention from them through strident rhetoric against external and domestic enemies. India’s security demands urgent and thoroughgoing reform of its armed forces, of its police and of its intelligence institutions and processes. Above all, the country needs a national security doctrine that contains a realistic assessment of current and emerging security challenges, the strategy which the country should adopt in addressing them and the institutional and governance reforms that the strategy will require for its implementation. National security cannot be “talked up”.
In a hostile neighbourhood what will count are real capabilities and it is important to align one’s rhetoric to these capabilities. Certainly, capabilities by themselves will not be enough. There must be leadership, which displays the willingness to use these capabilities when the need arises. But leadership also means prudence and sagacity especially when the fate of the 1.3 billion citizens of India is at stake.
The Chinese trap
India is right to condemn Pakistan’s continuing use of cross-border terror as an instrument of state policy. There has been success in isolating Pakistan internationally on the issue of terror, but one must also acknowledge that China has become its more powerful patron. Pakistan is a threat to India because it is conjoined with China, not because of its own capabilities, nuclear or conventional.
It is this China-Pakistan nexus that India needs to confront and seek to neutralise. Pakistan by itself is a side-show and must be treated as such. The level of nuclear and conventional capabilities that India needs to deter China are of a scale which, collaterally, would be more than sufficient to counter any Pakistani threat. China will be happy to keep India tethered in the sub-continent, be reduced to a sub-regional power, forever embroiled in managing Pakistan and, by default, leaving much of our proximate neighbourhood open for steady Chinese penetration, backed by resources we cannot match. We must not fall into this trap.
Unblemished nuclear non-proliferation record
The constant waving of the anti-Pakistan flag in these elections and reducing the national security argument to whether one is or can be tough on Pakistan, is likely to be damaging to India’s regional and global interests. Although this is being contested, there is no doubt that in the past couple of years, India is increasingly re-hyphenated with Pakistan and rising tensions between India and Pakistan will invite international efforts at mediation, some well meaning, some not.
This has always been an anathema to India and rightly so since we are not in the same category as Pakistan. Both India and Pakistan are non-signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but it is India’s unblemished record on non-proliferation and its consistently responsible posture on nuclear weapons that enabled it to successfully conclude the Indo-US nuclear deal and to obtain a waiver from the guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), enabling it to resume international cooperation in the nuclear domain and gain access to the international civil nuclear market.
This was achieved without India in any way constraining its nuclear weapons programme.
Subsequent Indian progress in developing longer-range ballistic missiles and its submarine-based nuclear capabilities has taken place in an international environment of tacit acceptance because such progress is seen as welcome in countervailing rising Chinese power. This is very different from the time when each Indian missile test was greeted with sharp criticism and seen as upsetting the balance between India and Pakistan. Having achieved this major shift in how the world sees India why should we ourselves be complicit in narrowing the prism once again to an India-Pakistan equation?
PM Modi’s remarks on nuclear policy
At an election rally on 21 April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asserted that under his leadership, Pakistani threat to use its nuclear weapons did not deter him from retaliating against it militarily in response to the Pulwama terrorist attack. He went on to say that India’s own nuclear weapons had not been saved for Diwali. This is the first time that an Indian prime minister has used such language on India’s nuclear deterrent. Whatever electoral compulsions triggered such rhetoric, its fallout could be adverse for India’s foreign policy and national security.
One, nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction and any contemplated use of such weapons will be catastrophic. India’s nuclear posture treats its nuclear weapons only for deterring nuclear threat and use by a potential adversary and for that reason, its nuclear deterrent is structured for retaliation only in the case of a nuclear attack.
This explains the doctrine of no-first-use (NFU) and of minimum credible deterrent. This posture was adopted by the NDA government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee after India’s nuclear tests in May 1998 when India became a declared nuclear weapon state. Prime Minister Modi himself had publicly dispelled reports in 2014 that the incoming BJP government was contemplating a review of the NFU doctrine by asserting that he would not change the line laid down by Vajpayee. Any statement at the highest level of government on nuclear weapons must be carefully thought through and articulated. Casual remarks in an election speech on a sensitive issue can be open to misinterpretation and misunderstanding among friends and adversaries alike.
Two, these remarks further tighten the hyphenation between India and Pakistan and will strengthen those who never lose an opportunity to describe the sub-continent as the “most dangerous place on earth”. If India and Pakistan are both brandishing their nuclear weapons at each other, the rest of the world has the obligation, it will be argued, to intervene and restrain both. The reputation we have built up as a responsible and reliable nuclear weapon state, which will act with restraint and prudence in handling these dangerous weapons, will be severely dented.
India is better served if we remain focused on building our capabilities and let them speak for themselves.
The author is a former Foreign Secretary and is currently Senior Fellow, CPR. Views are personal.