One doesn’t have to be a peacenik to know what lies at the core of any mature – and, certainly, successful – nuclear doctrine: be armed, let it be known to everyone that you are armed, and regularly remind everyone that you will use arms only to defend yourself. Since 1998, when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government successfully tested the country’s second nuclear device, India fulfilled the first two criteria.

Over the next decade or so, it managed to convince an initially doubtful world, that the latest official nuclear power was not ‘mad, bad and dangerous’ and was as responsible as the select few other nations with nuclear capability.

In this context, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh‘s comment on the news agency, ANI, on Friday — ‘Yes, it is true that when it comes to our nuclear policy, ‘no first use’ has been our policy to date. But what happens in the future, all that will depend on the circumstances’ — may have disturbed the peace embedded in the third criterion mentioned above.

Pakistan and China will probably not be the only two voices to sound alarmed at Singh’s statement from Pokhran where he was visiting to commemorate Vajapayee’s first death anniversary. Coming as the comment does on the same day as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is set to hold a closed-door meeting on Kashmir later in the evening, the timing of Singh’s comment could have been better. As could have been its content.

Context matters. While he reiterated India’s continuation of the ‘no first use’ policy, Singh’s comment comes at a time when the Indian government has been seen to conduct ‘radical’ moves – the Pulwama response, followed by the suspension of Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir.

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International diplomacy is as much about what you do, as it is about what you either intend to do or not do. It is this open-endedness of ‘intentions’ in the second half of his comment on India’s nuclear doctrine that could be taken advantage of by those wishing to paint the ‘responsible nuclear State’ as showing signs of irresponsibility.

That Singh has reiterated India’s commitment to a ‘no first use’ policy is what now needs to be proactively underlined by the government. This is clearly no ‘about turn’, but a case of underlining what needs to be heard and registered in the international community.

India knows the aches and pains of being isolated. It would be wise that whatever the ‘circumstances’ be in the future, India ensures that it reclaims its reputation – if, indeed, it has slipped since Friday morning – on being a responsible State in a neighbourhood that has its fair share of irresponsible actors. No matter if a molehill is being made out to be a mountain by the usual suspects.





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