This month marks two decades since India crossed the nuclear Rubicon in 1998 and declared itself as a de facto nuclear weapon state. It has been a long journey since then and the US-India civil nuclear deal was the culmination, making India part of the global nuclear architecture and its integration into the global nuclear order.

But as New Delhi works towards entering the Nuclear Suppliers Group and recalibrates its deterrence vis-à- vis China and Pakistan, debates continue about the future of India as a nuclear power.

Strategic Stability

A crude nuclear stability has emerged in South Asia as India’s calibrated responses to the three major region crises since May 1998 demonstrate. Nuclear weapons have contributed to regional strategic stability by reducing the risk of full-scale war in the region.

Despite repeated provocations by Pakistan — in 1999, 2001-02 and 2008 — and a resentful Indian public that wanted its government to retaliate, the Indian policymakers demonstrated an extraordinary measure of restraint in the aftermath of all three crises, refusing to launch even small-scale limited attacks against Pakistan.

The Indian government forbade the military to cross the Line of Control despite the Indian military officials clearly wanting to pursue such a posture.

In 2016, the Modi government changed that when the Indian Army’s special forces took out several suspected terror camps across the volatile Line of Control in Kashmir in response to an attack on an Indian Army post in Kashmir by Pakistan-based terrorists that killed 20 soldiers.

The Indian response came almost 11 days after the initial attack and reflected an attempt by the Modi government to pressurise Pakistan on multiple fronts, thereby gaining leverage over an adversary that had long used terrorism and proxies to challenge India.

The Modi government decided to use the instrumentality of military power — a tool which New Delhi had avoided for long. What was new was not that cross-border raids took place, but that India decided to publicise them to the extent it did.

Pakistan’s reaction was contradictory. While the nation’s military issued a flat denial of Indian claims and insisted that only cross-LoC firing had taken place, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif decried India’s “naked aggression”, and suggested that the move had exacerbated the civil-military divide in the country.

With its move, India did not discard strategic restraint, contrary to what many have suggested, but managed to reset the terms of military engagement with Pakistan.

For years now, Pakistan had raised the bogey of nuclear weapons to put India in a state of strategic limbo. After the Uri attacks, Pakistan’s defence minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif had waved the nuclear sabre and threatened to “annihilate” India if attacked.

But with its strikes, India has managed to convey to Pakistan and to other external stakeholders that Pakistan’s nuclear blackmail has no legs to stand on and that India has military room to operate below the threshold that would trigger major conventional, or even nuclear, escalation.

India is also trying to shape a counter narrative about the ability of India to inflict pain on Pakistan. By constantly deciding not to react militarily to Pakistani provocations, New Delhi was losing its deterrence credibility, further fuelling Pakistan’s adventurism.

Policy Change

Indian policymakers cutting across the ideological spectrum have been trying to grapple with Pakistan’s adventurous foreign policy for years now.

In fact, former National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon’s book talks of Pakistan’s nuclear shield permitting it to undertake terrorist attacks on India without fear of retaliation, a key variable that is resulting in new ways of looking at India’s posture.

Though the BJP-led government has so far not proposed any change in the doctrine or the "no first use" on which India’s declaratory nuclear doctrine is based, it had promised in its 2014 election manifesto to “study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times”.

Manohar Parrikar, India’s defence minister till early 2017, questioned India’s NFU policy on nuclear weapons, asking, “Why a lot of people say that India has no first use policy… I should say I am a responsible nuclear power and I will not use it irresponsibly… And as an individual, I get a feeling sometime why do I say that I am not going to use it first. I am not saying that you have to use it first just because you don’t decide that you don’t use it first. The hoax can be called off.”

Seismic Shift

But what really set the cat among the pigeons is a passage in a recent book by India’s former national security adviser, Shiv Shankar Menon, wherein he writes: “There is a potential grey area as to when India would use nuclear weapons first against another NWS (nuclear weapons state).

Circumstances are conceivable in which India might find it useful to strike first, for instance, against an NWS that had declared it would certainly use its weapons, and if India were certain that adversary’s launch was imminent.”

This has led some to argue that there is a major doctrinal shift happening in India whereby New Delhi may abandon its NFU nuclear policy and launch a preemptive strike against Pakistan if it feared that Islamabad was likely to use the weapons first. This is being viewed by many in the West as a seismic shift in India’s nuclear posture, one which may have significant consequences for South Asian strategic stability.

But as we complete 20 years since Pokhran II, it is time to reassess Indian nuclear policy and posture. Indian nuclear doctrine was articulated in 1999 and it certainly needs to be reviewed. All doctrines require regular reappraisals and Indian nuclear doctrine will inevitably have to respond to contemporary challenges. New Delhi should not shy away from this debate.