An Opportunity for Progress on Nuclear Issues in India

In the less than two weeks that have passed since his ascension to office, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already begun making headlines. A colorful mixture of controversial past and optimistic future, Modi entered office with a hardliner reputation from his time as chief minister of Gujarat, only to immediately surprise the world by inviting Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration, a gesture that has never before been extended in the history of either country. In the days since, Modi has continued to show hopeful signs of diplomacy towards his nuclear neighbor and is in a position to make significant progress in one of the world’s most historically turbulent regions. As the United States begins to envision a fruitful economic relationship with Modi, it should also make the most of opportunities to address nuclear concerns with the country’s diplomatic new prime minister.

Narendra Modi, member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), was once widely criticized for his role in the religiously fueled 2002 Gujarat riots and for his past instances of anti-Muslim rhetoric. That is why Modi’s recent gestures towards Nawaz Sharif (which include friendly Tweets and gift exchanges) have come as a shock and as an indicator of a shift in diplomatic approach.

The apparent transformation from hawk to dove does not stop with Modi’s approach to Pakistan either. On June 5, the Indian Prime Minister accepted an invitation from President Obama for a meeting in Washington. The invitation in and of itself was unprecedented, as the US had previously issued a Visa ban against Modi in condemnation of his actions in Gujarat. Among the numerous topics that will likely be broached at this September meeting, Obama should not miss an opportunity to discuss nuclear security and non-proliferation issues with the newly elected prime minister.

India’s nuclear doctrine has long been based around the concept of “no-first-use” (NFU). This doctrine, established in 1999, commits India’s nuclear arsenal to a purely retaliatory role. NFU is a vital component of Indian nuclear policy, especially in light of India’s close proximity to both Pakistan and China. By removing the possibility of first strike, NFU is intended to enhance regional security, ensuring that nuclear weapons remain exclusively deterrent and never antagonistic.

Controversy began circling Modi’s position on nuclear weapons use with the April 7 release of his party’s manifesto, in which the BJP stated its goal of “revising and updating India’s nuclear doctrine, making it relevant to challenges of current times.” Many speculated that the nature of these revisions would include abandoning NFU in favor of a doctrine allowing first strike.

Thankfully, no statements in the days following his election have indicated that Modi considers straying from NFU. However, even adherence to India’s existing nuclear doctrine is not sufficient to promote regional security; NFU has been repeatedly criticized for its failure to account for the possibility of a terrorist attack. If Pakistan attacks India with conventional weaponry, India will not use a nuclear weapon in response. But what if a non-state actor attacks India? If militant actors from Pakistan secure a nuclear weapon and use it against India in an effort to provoke Modi, does NFU grant India the right to respond with nuclear retaliation? The answer is unclear, and the threat of such an attack is unfortunately very real due to poor security of nuclear materials in the region.

Although many of the changes that need to be made to India’s nuclear doctrine are internal, the upcoming meeting in Washington can still be extremely constructive in terms of addressing India’s nuclear issues. If Obama chooses to make nuclear security and non-proliferation a priority at this meeting, Narendra Modi may be the perfect candidate for actively responding to these concerns.  Modi’s reputation as a hardliner may allow him to make positive changes in nuclear policy without suffering from the same backlash that a more progressive prime minister would.

So what steps could Obama take in September?

First, he could express support for Prime Minister Modi’s outreach efforts towards Pakistan and encourage their continuation. But more substantively, the Obama administration could offer an increase in United States intelligence cooperation with India. The threat of nuclear terrorism in the South Asian region is pressing, and India’s current counter-terrorism resources are inadequate to cope with the threat. United States support in these areas would lessen the likelihood of a surprise terrorist attack, and its shared intelligence would increase Modi’s ability to differentiate actions taken by Pakistan from actions taken by terrorist actors. Obama could highlight these possible points of cooperation to reduce the risk of a nuclear exchange in the region and simultaneously could use the collaboration as a confidence building measure between the United States and India, at a time when US-India relations (both trade and otherwise) are fairly low.

A third topic Obama could address at the September meeting is the issue of India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).  The NSG is a group of nuclear supplier countries that contribute to non-proliferation by enforcing standardized guidelines for nuclear exports. India is currently not a member of the NSG, although it received a permission to import civilian nuclear technologies from NSG countries in 2008, a waiver that came as a shock to the non-proliferation regime. Although the issue is multilateral, a bilateral talk between Modi and Obama could allow for a reassessment of previous US support of India’s NSG import waiver, and could encourage Modi to prioritize future non-proliferation measures.

With September still months away and Narendra Modi only just beginning his term, much could change between now and the proposed meeting in Washington. However, given Modi’s recent displays of diplomacy and rationality, the possibility of him transforming India’s nuclear doctrine for the better is not far-fetched. This September, the United States should be ready to respond to these changes and make the most of an opportunity to promote nuclear security in the region.