Will India's Elections Redefine Its Nuclear Weapons Program?

Modi at the meeting announcing the BJP’s election manifesto in New Delhi Photograph by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The nationalist Hindu party likely to come to power in India wants to reconsider the nation’s nuclear doctrine. What might that mean? We don’t know, but it’s an interesting question.

Much of the manifesto (PDF) released this week by the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, amounts to inside baseball for those living elsewhere. Page 39, however, offers a section of broader significance:

“BJP believes that the strategic gains acquired by India during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime on the nuclear programme have been frittered away by the Congress1. 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.” As part of that process, the BJP said, it intends to “study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times.”

A tougher line toward Pakistan, aided by a more aggressive nuclear doctrine, comes to mind. The two nations have waged wars against each other and endured a number of standoffs2 in the past. Officials in New Delhi blame Pakistani intelligence for supporting militant Islamist groups accused of launching attacks on Indian soil.

Reuters has offered some helpful context about the BJP manifesto, reporting that “sources involved in drafting the document said the ‘no-first-use’ policy introduced after India conducted a series of nuclear tests in 1998 would be reconsidered.” The same article said two aides to BJP leader Narendra Modi “told Reuters in the run-up to the vote that if he becomes prime minister, India would get tougher in territorial disputes with China and more robust with Pakistan over attacks by Islamist militants based there.”3

In Pakistan, the Express Tribune wrote in an editorial that optimists in the country point to past success in relations with BJP leadership in India4. However, the Express Tribune cited worries surrounding Modi; these center on the 2002 riots that killed about 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, in the state he controlled. (In the words of the newspaper: “violent anti-Muslim baggage.”5)

Recently, a top Modi aide was accused of having called on voters to get revenge by voting for Modi in a district near the site of deadly sectarian rioting that displaced Muslims last year. If the BJP gets enough votes to easily put together a ruling coalition, Modi will be India’s prime minister.

What that would mean for India’s relations with its neighbors is not yet clear. But the Express Tribune seems on solid footing with this suggestion: “This will be a tricky period for India-Pakistan ties.”

1 The incumbent ruling party, which has dominated Indian politics for much of the nation’s post-independence history.
2 If you have a few minutes, a video clip focusing on U.S. officials’ perspective is here.
3 According to this recent article in the Hindu newspaper, however, Modi’s messaging at home and abroad might diverge: “Mr. Lan and other analysts do not attribute much importance to Mr. Modi’s recent rhetoric on the campaign trail promising the hard line on China. After all, his message in Beijing was starkly different.”
4 Including Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who is cited in the BJP manifesto section quoted above.
5 A panel appointed by India’s Supreme Court found no evidence that Modi’s decisions at the time prevented victims from receiving help, and a senior BJP official has said there’s no need for Modi to apologize.

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