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Why Modi wants to change India's nuclear policy

May 13, 2014 11:49 IST

Narendra Modi with soldiers. Kind courtesy:'Imagine a scenario where a terror strike by Pakistan-supported jihadis causes thousands of deaths in India. India in retaliation destroys terror camps in Pakistan occupied Kashmir.'

'There is a clamour for revenge in Pakistan and that country begins to fuel its missiles for a nuclear strike against India and that is detected by Indian satellites.'

'No sane government in India will then wait for the nuclear bombs to fall on Delhi before launching its own strike. To be effective, this may well involve nuclear weapons.'

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd) says the change in the 'No First Use' pledge in the BJP manifesto is long overdue.

By all accounts, the 2014 election has an uncanny resemblance to the 1971 general election. In that election Indira Gandhi was the sole campaigner and her persona was as much an issue as it is in Narendra Modi's case today. In those days of no television coverage and a hostile media, Indira Gandhi won 352 seats.

Her simple question, 'They want to remove me, I want to remove poverty,' so captured the imagination of the country that she won a landslide victory, her party, a breakaway group from the Congress, played a very minor role in it.

In 2014, on the lines of Indira Gandhi, Modi is asking the country 'I want to bring development, they say stop Modi'.

The Bombay South constituency epitomised the 1971 election. An unknown Dr N N Kailas of the Congress-Indira defeated both George Fernandes and industrialist Naval Tata. Fernandes had the title of 'giant killer' since he had defeated the veteran Congress leader S K Patil, the uncrowned king of then Bombay, in the 1967 election.

In the 1971 election Indians voted for Indira Gandhi, the local candidate was immaterial. 2014 seems headed in that direction.

This impending electoral change has begun to have an effect on India's external and defence policies and environment. I wish to discuss only two aspects -- India-US relations and India's nuclear posture.

Outgoing Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh had made improved India-US relations the cornerstone of his foreign policy. He even staked the fate of his coalition government in 2008 on the issue of the India-US nuclear deal. I was a supporter of that initiative as it was thought that the deal would end India's isolation from global regimes like the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Wassenaar Arrangement.

The Wassenaar Arrangement or Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies was long seen as a major impediment in India's economic growth and indigenous defence capability.

But nearly ten years down the line, there seems to have been no forward movement on this vital issue. This is because unlike the George W Bush regime, the Barack Obama administration has dragged its feet on the follow up of the nuclear deal. It appears there was a basic divergence in expectations -- India thought that the US interest in balancing an emerging China was sufficient reason for the US to offer strategic support and technology to India while the US looked at it as an opportunity to advance its commercial interests as well.

The matter was further complicated when in 2005 (three years after the Gujarat riots) the US revoked Modi's US visa. The visa revocation, contrary to the propaganda by some NGOs and the ruling Congress party, had nothing to do with Modi's alleged role in the 2002 riots.

The denial of the US visa was a result of the activities of the evangelist lobby in the US, who felt thwarted in their conversion activities in the tribal areas of Gujarat.

I held consultations with US diplomats and think-tanks (who will remain un-named for obvious reasons) in 2003 and the common refrain on the 2002 Gujarat riots was that the persons killed were less than half of the dead in the 9/11 terror attacks. It suited the Americans that their measures found instant support amongst the 'secular' lobby and resonance with the ruling party. This lie continued well past its 'use by' date right till 2014.

The Modi effect was seen when for the first time the Indian government took a firm stand against American high handedness when the New York police 'strip searched' an Indian lady diplomat and took reciprocal retaliatory measures. The fear of Modi exploiting a weak response was largely responsible for it.

As the prospects of Modi becoming the next prime minister improved, the US thought it fit to change its ambassador to India Nancy J Powell. The ambassador must have been in the loop of decision-making on granting 'asylum' to the family of the Indian lady diplomat's maid. The episode is in stark contrast to what India did not do two years earlier when another consular official and a young daughter of another diplomat were similarly victimised.

As our puerile media describes it, 'muscular' foreign policy was in evidence due to the fear of Modi. Else, India would have waffled its way into another humiliation.

The proverbial cat was set amongst the pigeons when the Modi manifesto for the 2014 election spoke of revisiting the 'No First Use pledge' and minimum nuclear deterrence. One must remember the history for this. When the Bharatiya Janata Party government carried out a thermonuclear weapon test in May 1998 the world was shocked.

It was well known that India had nuclear capability. The shock was not the test, but the fact that India kept it secret even in this era of saturation satellite coverage. After the shock wore off, the world realised that the BJP had given an explicit pledge of conducting nuclear tests in its 1998 election manifesto.

When it comes to security issues, with its experience of 1998, the world has come to take the BJP manifesto seriously. In a sense, such is the credibility of the BJP and Modi, that he has already achieved a degree of 'deterrence' even before coming to power.

A word about the posturing by largely illiterate Indian commentators on the 'No First Use' pledge. It only means that India will not brandish a nuclear threat on non-serious or minor threats.

But imagine a scenario where a terror strike by Pakistan-supported jihadis causes thousands of deaths in India. India in retaliation destroys terror camps in Pakistan occupied Kashmir. There is a clamour for revenge in Pakistan and that country begins to fuel its missiles for a nuclear strike against India and that is detected by Indian satellites.

No sane government in India will then wait for the nuclear bombs to fall on Delhi before launching its own strike against the launch sites and other weapon storage areas. To be effective, this may well involve nuclear weapons.

Even the countries that have a 'no first use' policy (very few have anyway and certainly not the US or Pakistan) will launch a 'pre-emptive' strike, fully accepted even by the UN charter as the right to defend.

What 'no first use' means is that a country would avoid a 'preventive' strike. The only difference between the two being the time element.

In addition, most countries that have the resources and technology have over time shifted from a rigid deterrence to a strategy of flexible response.

This strategic revision was long overdue as India is unfortunately surrounded by 'delusional' States. Pakistan has shown this in 1965 when it dropped its elite paratroopers at the Halwara and Adampur airbases in Punjab hundreds of kilometres from the border. The paratroopers had no hope of a link-up and in the end most were captured by lathi-wielding farmers!

A more delusional military action is difficult to find in annals of world history. It repeated the folly in 1971 by escalating the war to the west or thought that India would not use airpower in Kargil. China continues to embark on adventures like the Somradong Chu incident of 1987 and pinpricks in Ladakh.

The present all or nothing strategy is an invitation for disaster and a revision is long overdue.

Will the Modi effect then worsen our relations with the US or create additional tensions in the neighbourhood? Unlikely. As history shows it was the tough Indira Gandhi who made the breakthrough in India-US relations at the Cancun Summit in October 1981. China began to take India seriously only after the 1998 Pokhran tests and Pakistan pledged an end to terror attacks only after Operation Parakram in 2002.

Strength always respects strength and also ensures peace.

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd) is a former head and joint director, War History Division, Ministry of Defence.

Photograph: Narendra Modi with Indian soldiers. Kind courtesy:

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)