During his recent visit to Pokhran, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh argued that India’s adherence to the principle of ‘no first use’ of nuclear weapons is not sacrosanct. As Singh stated to the media, “Pokhran is the area which witnessed Atalji’s firm resolve to make India a nuclear power and yet remain firmly committed to ‘no first use’ doctrine. India has strictly adhered to this doctrine. What happens in future depends on the circumstances.” Singh’s comments, coming against the backdrop of recent Pakistani threats, have only intensified an already heated debate enveloping the future of India’s nuclear doctrine.
A nuclear doctrine states how a nuclear weapon state would employ its nuclear weapons both during peace and war. By communicating to the enemy its stated intentions and resolve, nuclear doctrines help states to establish deterrence vis-à-vis its adversary during peace and once deterrence fails, guides the state’s response during war. After the 1998 nuclear test when India declared itself a nuclear weapon state, it also enunciated a doctrine of ‘no first use’ of nuclear weapons. Put simply, Indian decision-makers categorically rejected the idea of initiating the use of nuclear weapons in any conflict scenario. India’s nuclear doctrine was purely retaliatory in nature. New Delhi would avail the nuclear option only in case it was attacked first. But once attacked, India’s response would be massive. Since then, for almost two decades, ‘no first use’ has remained a core organizing principle of India’s nuclear deterrence.
Lately, however, the sanctity of ‘no first use’ has been called into question not only by strategic analysts but also high-ranking government officials. In 2016, then defence minister Manohar Parrikar raised doubts on India’s adherence to the policy of ‘no first use’ by saying that New Delhi cannot “bind itself” to ‘no first use’ for eternity. Whereas political leaders have tried to insert an element of ambivalence into India’s nuclear doctrine, retired government officials have been far more categorical.