Inaugurating the Indian Pugwash Society and IDSA conference on ‘A nuclear weapons free world: From conception to reality’, the prime minister urged the world to move beyond ‘partial and discriminatory’ approaches and towards a world free of nuclear weapons. Excoriating Cold War thinking that legitimised nuclear first use, he called for an agreed multilateral framework involving all states possessing nuclear weapons.

Calling for ‘practical measures’ to reduce nuclear dangers, he opined that reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in security doctrines was a necessary first step. To him this could be done by establishing a ‘global no-first-use’ norm. He reasoned that the legitimacy of nuclear weapons use should be restricted to their deterring a nuclear attack. Towards this end, not only must states possessing nuclear weapons recognise this but must be prepared to declare it. This could then ‘open the way to gradual reductions and, finally, elimination through a Nuclear Weapons Convention’.

This is likely the very last call of the prime minister in furthering India’s commitment to a nuclear weapons convention. It is in line with India’s Draft Nuclear Doctrine, largely adopted as India’s official nuclear doctrine, which had stated: ‘8.2. Since no-first use of nuclear weapons is India's basic commitment, every effort shall be made to persuade other States possessing nuclear weapons to join an international treaty banning first use.’ The Prime Minister was only fulfilling a doctrinally ordained commitment.

The position he put forth is consistent with India’s long standing nuclear perspective, an early articulation of which was in a 1968 IDSA monograph, ‘A strategy for India for a credible posture against a nuclear adversary’, anonymously authored most likely by late Mr. Subrahmanyam. The monograph maintained that legitimacy of nuclear weapons could only be abolished by foreswearing of their first use (p. 5).

Subrahmanyam went on to ensure inclusion of this in the Draft Nuclear Doctrine, that he is credited with stewarding through the large and opinionated first National Security Advisory Board that he headed thirty years down the line by making preambular reference to ‘the very existence of offensive doctrine pertaining to the first use of nuclear weapons and the insistence of some nuclear weapons states on the legitimacy of their use’ as constituting the premier threat (Para 1.5).

The nuclear capable Agni-IV. Pic: Wikimedia

The idea is that once nuclear weapons use is considered illegitimate their eventual elimination will be closer. This would involve as a first step a constriction in the purpose for which they can be used, restricting this to only deterring nuclear weapons use. This entails adoption by other nuclear states that have other uses for nuclear weapons, such as to deter conventional attack, to move towards the Indian view that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear weapons. This switch in thinking enables moving towards No First Use, which once subscribed to by all would be the ‘global no first use norm’ referred to by Dr. Manmohan Singh.

But does this articulation constitute the ‘practical measure’ that the PM had in mind?

India has not been able to get its neighbour Pakistan on board over this in the past two decades. One of JN Dixit’s non-papers to Pakistan in 1994 was on No First Use of the capability, even though the two states were not overt nuclear powers then. Pakistan subscribing to a different perspective on nuclear weapons – that they are also to deter war itself – was unwilling to give up its nuclear trump card to checkmate India. And with good reason since it was then embarked on proxy war and wanted to deter India’s conventional military might being brought to bear on it for its temerity.

A portion of Pakistan’s obduracy can be attributable to India’s own military transformation through mechanisation in the eighties and creation by the early nineties of three strike corps. India has since gone on to re-appraise the strike corps in light of the nuclearisation of the subcontinent by going in for a limited war doctrine, colloquially called Cold Start.

This attempt at making India’s conventional advantage relevant once again in the nuclear era has had the consequence of making Pakistan more reliant on its nuclear card. Its restive nuclear trigger finger is best symbolised by the Nasr, a tactical nuclear weapon.

Though unpalatable and perhaps unfair to India, its position will inevitably be seen through the India-Pakistan lens. A plausible critique could well be that this is an attempt by India to defang Pakistan, thereby making its (India’s) conventional power reckonable. Ducking such arguments will remain difficult till India really wishes to finally get ‘practical’. Clearly, if India is serious on creating a norm, it would require first taking its neighbour along.

Here, one harks back to the debate of the early eighties that had Pakistan taking a leaf out of India’s book dating to 1949 by offering a ‘no war pact’ and India offering friendly neighbourly relations instead. The latter can bring about the former, even without a pact. With war ruled out thus, there would be no question of nuclear first use or no-first-use implying nuclear retaliation. Friendly relations are hostage to outstanding issues that need resolving. Therefore, ‘practical’ steps towards no-first-use begin closer home.

One of Subrahmanyam’s reasons for nuclear advocacy for India was that mutual deterrence was stabilising. Responding to General Sundarji’s invite to participate in the seminal postal seminar in the early eighties at the College of Combat which Sundarji then headed, Subrahmanyam wrote that Pakistan’s ‘inferiority at the conventional level will be compensated when mutual deterrence at the nuclear level is established (Combat Paper No. 2, p. 53).’ He believed that this would enable Pakistan reconcile to the status quo on Kashmir. Time proved him wrong, however.

Wanting to unlock the status quo, Pakistan was provocative on the subconventional level, forcing India to leverage its superiority at the conventional level. Consequently for India to brandish No-first-use appears self-serving. It needs to go beyond Subrahmanyam’s use for nuclear weapons: to freeze the status quo in Kashmir.

It would require making good on its offer of friendship. It cannot have Kashmir and eat it too. Dr. Manmohan Singh had the answers in his first term: making borders irrelevant. However, this got sidetracked by 26/11. Getting practical on No-first-use is therefore not so much about nuclear weapons and certainly less of norms at the global level. It is about conflict resolution closer home.  

Subrahmanyam’s answer in his 1968 monograph was that renouncing nuclear first use as illegitimate could be enforced by all states collectively retaliating against any state resorting to nuclear weapons. Since he was writing in the context of the Cold War, not only was such renunciation unrealistic for the conventionally disadvantaged West, but such collective action was incomprehensible. It is with good reason then that the PM chose to end his speech by vaguely referring to ‘verification’ and ‘political measures’.

The apprehension that arises is that with such renewed advocacy of the impossible, India may be creating the grounds for exiting its No-first-use commitment. When it blasted its way into the nuclear club, it had reasoned that this owed to no one listening to its call for nuclear disarmament. When no one listens to its No-first-use call, would India give it up?