Defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s remarks about when and how nuclear weapons should be used came on the eve of a crucial meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in Vienna that is expected to take up India’s application to join the elite club.
They also came at a time when India’s Prime Minister was preparing for a landmark civil nuclear agreement with Japan, whose sensitivities about atomic weapons are no secret.
The point of having a credible minimum nuclear deterrent and a nuclear doctrine that is largely out in public is that there is no need to talk about the nukes, or what India intends to do with them.
Parrikar, of course, tried to pass off his remarks as a personal opinion. “Why a lot of people say that India has (a) No First Use policy…I should say I am a responsible nuclear power and I will not use it irresponsibly…as an individual, I get a feeling sometime why do I say that I am not going to use it first,” he said on Thursday.
Experts, however, argued that the greater the ambiguity about a nuclear doctrine, the greater the deterrence. Some even contend that India erred by making public its draft nuclear doctrine in 1999, almost a year after the blasts in Pokhran, and by releasing parts of the doctrine on its adoption in 2003.
“The more ambiguity and opacity there is about a nuclear doctrine, the more it adds to deterrence,” Bharat Karnad, a national security expert at the Centre for Policy Research, told Hindustan Times.
Karnad, who was part of India’s first National Security Advisory Board that put together the draft doctrine, said the members of the body were “aghast” when the government of the day decided to make the document public.
Achin Vanaik, one of the founders of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, said it had become the norm for some Union ministers and chief ministers to make “outrageous” statements that were later rationalised.
“No matter what the defence minister said, he was speaking in an official capacity and his comments can’t be taken lightly,” Vanaik said. “This is part of a wider strategy to inject certain things into the public discourse that fits in with the belligerent, intolerant nationalism this government is pushing.”
Vanaik also questioned the nuclear stance of India and China, saying both weren’t “practising what they preach” about No First Use. He said, “No First Use implies these countries should have enough weapons only for a second strike but they’re both expanding their arsenals.”
Observers have contended that Parrikar’s remarks were an apparent retort to recent sabre-rattling by Pakistan, but Karnad argued that the neighbouring country did not even pose a “credible threat”.
Referring to a country’s capacity to absorb a nuclear strike, he said the “exchange ratio between destruction imposed and destruction absorbed” would be far greater for Pakistan.