Last week defence minister Manohar Parrikar had created a flutter when he appeared to cast doubts on India’s nuclear doctrine of “no first use” framed after the 1998 test by the Atal Behari Vajpayee government. The minister, and the defence ministry, then hastily clarified that the doctrine hadn’t changed, and that
Mr Parrikar was only expressing his personal view. But doubts persist that the minister may have been deployed by his party, the government or RSS to send up a trial balloon. Quite apart from the fact that in our system a minister can’t express an individual opinion on an important public issue, particularly one so sensitive as the nuclear question, there are other reasons why Mr Parrikar’s comment can’t be taken to be in the nature of an Upanishadic speculation or thinking aloud by an inquisitive soul.
On his return from Japan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi publicly extolled his defence minister as “one of the brightest jewels” in his government. The commentariat thought Mr Parrikar had done enough to earn a censure. His seemingly unwise comments had come even as a meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was due in Vienna to consider the Indian application for membership. Equally worrying, the personal observation came while the PM was engaged in clinching a sensitive civil nuclear agreement with Japan, that has been deeply suspicious of India for its 1998 test since this country is not a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
But none of this mattered to Mr Modi, who publicly praised his defence minister. Besides, the BJP’s 2014 manifesto had appeared to openly question the nuclear doctrine, and this had been commented on then. The document made plain its intention to “study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it to make it relevant to the challenges of current times”. From its early Jan Sangh days, the saffron party has been in favour of India being a robust nuclear-capable nation.
Given its far-right nationalistic outlook, the BJP is likely to have swallowed the “no first use” doctrine — explicated in 1999 — as a bitter pill, given the global disapprobation that followed our nuclear test, specially from the United States, with which the then Vajpayee government sought the closest possible relationship. For a party that lays a premium on appearing militarily “strong”, to the BJP mindset “no first use” is likely to sound “vegetarian” and weak, though the doctrine makes eminent sense. Its essence is that India will not deploy nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear weapon state; and in dealing with the latter it won’t be the first to use the bomb. This implies having a credible nuclear deterrence. In light of this context, the government needs to quickly clarify its position in Parliament....