Originally Published 2016-11-14 05:08:05 Published on Nov 14, 2016
Parrikar's off-the-cuff remarks have strengthened China's case against India on both counts.
Six ways in which Parrikar's remarks should concern Modi

What was Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar thinking? No, seriously, we know what he was thinking, because he told us out loud, which he shouldn't have — but what was he thinking, to share what he was thinking? Nobody who runs the Defence Ministry of a nuclear-armed country should be musing about nuclear policy out loud - and particularly not if the musing sounds inane and uninformed.

But that's exactly what Parrikar chose to do, wondering aloud why India should "bind itself" to a no-first-use policy for nuclear weaponry, in the context of a discussion on unpredictability in warfare. This was his personal opinion, he added: "It is my concept."

Now this is far from the first time that Parrikar has shot his mouth off. I mean, I have myself been forced to ask what Parrikar has been thinking once before. After all, he's even mused aloud about India using terrorism as an instrument of state strategy. His inability to stop himself from blurting out his innermost thoughts has become a bit of a strategic liability.

Let us count the ways in which this statement was downright odd. First of all, when a union Defence Minister is addressing the public, there is no such thing as a "personal view" about something as grave as nuclear policy. Regardless of the disclaimer, foreign countries will view the statement as indicating that at least there are second thoughts within the government about no-first-use.

Second, given the irresponsibility of the statement, it is almost ironic that Parrikar suggested no-first-use be replaced with a nuclear policy pivoted on the stand that "India is a responsibility country and it will use nuclear weapons responsibly." The very manner in which a proposed policy of "responsibility" was being discussed effectively undermined the claim to responsibility.

Third, he seemed to misunderstand the point behind a no-first-use policy. The point is precisely to take certain strategic options away from Pakistan. In the same conversation, he celebrated the idea that the recent cross-LoC attacks on terrorist staging camps had increased India's strategic space. Why then did he want to increase Pakistan's?

Fourth, India's nuclear infrastructure is calibrated towards the military options implied by its no-first-use policy. It has developed capabilities for a massive retaliatory strike, rather than the flexible and agile infrastructure used for first-use or "tactical" nuclear strikes. Parrikar's musing suggests the country's Defence Minister may not properly understand the orientation of this infrastructure, or its interaction with policy.

Fifth, Parrikar made this statement while Modi was in Japan — which has, given its history, a very well-known hard line on nuclear weapons. The sight of India's Defence Minister being so apparently unserious about nuclear weapons will not have pleased the Japanese. They will find it difficult to imagine that Parrikar was unaware about their attitude to nuclear weapons and their use. Let us hope it did not come across as a deliberate message of some sort. It is saddening that the best-case scenario for India is that a valued ally should think that our Defence Minister is simply poorly briefed.

Sixth, Parrikar made this statement barely a day before the Nuclear Suppliers Group or NSG was meeting to consider the criteria for India's membership. India's membership of the NSG was humiliatingly blocked by the People's Republic of China, which insisted that no exception could be made — and thus opened the door for India and Pakistan to be considered together. In its argument for NSG membership, India's responsibility and restraint as a nuclear power is central. No-first-use is an important part of that restraint. And a clear and considered nuclear policy is part of that responsibility. Parrikar's off-the-cuff remarks have strengthened China's case against India on both counts.

And so, certainly, seemed to be the implication of the swift response from the Defence Ministry, which distanced itself from its own minister's statement. It's true that defence ministers are not the last word on nuclear policy in India. But it still seems beyond parody that a ministry swiftly indicated that it had nothing to do with its own minister's statement. This is far from the efficiency and silence that we are told Narendra Modi expects of his ministers.

Parrikar is a genial man, and his garrulousness is part of this geniality. But it is increasingly clear that it conflicts with his duties as a minister. It is a particularly bad fit for a Defence Minister. It is beyond puzzling that Modi has allowed him to stay on in charge of the sort of ministry that is far better filled by someone relatively inscrutable. Perhaps one has to revisit the idea that Modi carefully evaluates his ministers' performances. Certainly, Parrikar's ability to get himself in hot water through his thinking aloud — and these statements' negative impact on our image and our strategic position — seem to suggest that Modi is hardly keeping careful track of performance. How many more such statements will Parrikar make before the Prime Minister cracks down?

This commentary originally appeared in NDTV.

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Mihir Swarup Sharma

Mihir Swarup Sharma

Mihir Swarup Sharma is the Director Centre for Economy and Growth Programme at the Observer Research Foundation. He was trained as an economist and political scientist ...

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