Sunday, April 13, 2014

What Upcoming Elections in India Could Mean for its Established Nuclear Doctrine

The current general election being conducted in India which began April 7th, will draw to a conclusion May 12th, with winners being announced on May 16th.  The elections which will determine all 543 parliamentary seats in the Lok Sabha (House of the People), are likely to spell major changes to the power structure in India's national government, likely giving power to the more nationalistic Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).  The expected outcome precipitated by major gains for the BJP will be a new Prime Minister of India, likely to be the Gujarati hindu-nationalist Narendra Modi.  Modi, who infamously was the Chief Minister of the State of Gujarat during the 2002 riots in Ahmedabad, faced allegations that he allowed, and even instigated the anti-Muslim riots which ended in the deaths of roughly 1,000 victims. Although the key issues of the current elections are the direction of the Indian economy and improving its governance, one of the more important items contended in the election are possible changes to its national nuclear posture and federal defense policies.

BJP-Leader and probable next Indian PM Narendra Modi      
Source: Pragativadi (India)

In the BJP "Manifesto" released this past week by the party, a proposed change in Indian national defense policy, especially in regards to its nuclear posture was vaguely mentioned and outlined.  On page 39 of the document, the BJP state the impetus behind proposed changes to India's nuclear posture and program structure, stating: 
  1. Our emphasis was, and remains on, beginning of a new thrust on framing policies that would serve India's national interest in the 21st century. We will follow a two-pronged independent nuclear programme, unencumbered by foreign pressure and influence, for civilian and military purposes, especially as nuclear power is a major contributor to India's energy sector. 
The emphasis on an Indian nuclear program driven by "national interest" and conducted "unencumbered by foreign pressure and influence" is predictable, especially from a political party committed to hindu-nationalism.  The manifestation that these vague commitments appear to be intended to bring India's nuclear posture and development into question. The most important policy regarding India's nuclear posture that appears set to come under revision is the long standing 'no-first-use' policy that has been maintained since nuclear testing began in 1998.  Although the BJP manifesto makes no explicit reference to India's established no-first-use policy, the drafters of the same document acknowledged to media outlets that this was one of the policies which would come under strong reconsideration if they are successful during the current election cycle.  Also stated in the manifesto, is the fact that India would begin dealing with cross-border terrorism and territorial disputes more aggressively than in past situations to protect its own national interests.  These claims can be construed as troubling, especially within a South Asian region that is already rife with contentious international relations, and relatively low on stability.  

Pakistan, who proliferated in response to India shortly after the first successful nuclear test was conducted in 1998, did not adopt a no-first-use policy of its own, and relies more strongly on its nuclear arsenal than India because of the considerable gap in relative conventional military capabilities.  The Indo-Pakistani relationship has been, and remains a possible powder-keg waiting to explode, resulting from the nuclear capabilities of both nations. A major change in Indian declaratory policy could potentially change the calculus determining nuclear-arms usage between both countries, further destabilizing the relationship.  Although a nuclear strike by India responding to a terrorist or conventional attack by Pakistan would remain highly unlikely, even if the BJP were to rescind India's no-first-use policy, a more aggressive Indian nuclear posture would lead to a more contentious relationship between the two nations by decreasing trust, especially on the Pakistani side, possibly increasing the chances of a nuclear conflict.  India's relatively benign previous reactions to Pakistani sourced instigations and terrorist attacks appear to be coming to an end if the BJP are victorious as expected in the current general elections.  Even though the previously stated likely-hood of an Indian nuclear strike in response to a conventional or terrorist attack remains all-but out of the realm of possibility, a change in India's nuclear posture and a more aggressive foreign policy, could increase the volatility of Pakistani behavior, precipitating an increasingly destabilized situation.  

Photo of the highly contentious Wagah Border between India and Pakistan in Punjab      

Despite numerous cases of violence and various other provocations committed by both countries, the nuclear posture by each has worked to prevent nuclear conflict, begging the question why a revision to policy by either is necessary, or even advisable.  Modi and the BJP may be able to offer hopes for greater commercial success and better domestic governance to India, but it must be careful to not become to brazen or aggressive in regards to nuclear posture or defense policies, threatening nuclear deterrence.  A nuclear conflict between Pakistan or India could create a potential situation where either or both national governments would fail as a result, making preposed economic and governmental reforms a mute point.  The hope for continued relative peace between India and Pakistan relies on smart nuclear posture and defense policies from both nations, especially India.  The onus lies especially heavily on Indian policy makers because of the aforementioned conventional superiority that it possesses.  If India creates a situation where Pakistani policy makers feel as if they have their perverbial backs-to-the-wall, they may decide that they have no other recourse than to strike with nuclear force.  By doing away with its no-first-use policy, India inches closer to creating such a situation, wherein Pakistani officials can no longer be sure that India will not use nuclear weapons against it without first being the recipient of such an attack.  

Going forward, cooler heads must prevail among newly elected Indian policy makers. The stakes for both nations are exceedingly high and even a slight change in the current situation could set forth a set of unforeseen events that could result in disastrous consequences for either or both sides.  Hopefully the BJP and potential future PM Modi will understand the severity of their decisions and meet them with the reason and pensiveness that they deserve.   

UPDATE:  The BJP came out with a clarification to previous statements made about revising India's no-first-use policy today in the Hindustan Times & Diplomat.  Here is the link: BJP statement on 'no-first-use' policy.

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