New Delhi: Insofar as India’s nuclear doctrine may be deciphered through its opacity, it consists of a few constants. These are no first use mated with massive retaliation joined in contradiction to a third fixity called minimum nuclear deterrence. If you profess to have a minimum deterrent, your retaliation could scarcely be massive. After the failure of the thermonuclear test in Pokhran II, a further specious argument was advanced. This was that India could do quite adequately with fission weapons. Thermonuclear weapons were not necessary.

Given the asymmetric adversaries that India faces in the subcontinent, this writer had suggested a more nuanced form of no first use in a series published on the week of the Pokhran II twentieth anniversary called “Testing time.” No first use in its present form was valid for Pakistan since the total asymmetry was tilted in favour of India. For its own insurance against an Indian grab of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir or such Pakistani territories as could be used as a bargaining counter, Pakistan had come to rely on theatre nuclear weapons with all the attendant risks. The situation for India with China was in reverse. The asymmetric advantage lay with China which was also eyeing Arunachal Pradesh. It was, therefore, sensible to adopt the Pakistani stratagem in the North East with a rolled-back no first use and the exercise of the theatre nuclear weapons option.

Following the publication of the Pokhran II series in this magazine, there has been a distinct softening of the Chinese tone. The Pokhran II series also insisted on India ruthlessly leveraging its market and playing by the new geo-economic rulebook of “nation first”. This has likely further pressured China to show an unexpected fondness for India. The latest show of Chinese bonhomie towards India is not the result of the Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping informal summit. To massage Modi’s ego, the Chinese may play on the line, but in truth, they only understand the language of force and determination when they are grounded in international legitimacy and driven by irrefutable logic.

However, as usual, the Narendra Modi government has misread Chinese signals. A section of government is leaking to the press that the regime is convinced China will permit India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Club. Credit for this optimism is placed on the Wuhan meeting. If the NSG comes through before the 2019 general election, it would be a feather in Modi’s cap, the optimistic argument goes. None of this is going to happen, though. China is India’s implacable strategic rival, Wuhan or no Wuhan. China has made it a prestige issue to block India from NSG although India gains practically nothing from a membership. In pursuing China for NSG, the danger is that India would lose such levers as it possesses. And the NSG will bring Narendra Modi no benefit in the general election. The general election will be about mass unemployment, the atmosphere of fear and intimidation prevalent among Dalits, adivasis and Muslims, creeping authoritarianism, unrestrained rise in fuel prices, the killer effects of demonetization and GST on business and the economy, and the destruction of the middle class dream. Where among all this does NSG matter?

NSG also deflects attention from a critical gap in India’s deterrent. Fission weapons might suffice for Pakistan till it chooses not to show its thermonuclear armoury. But how is a deterrence balance established with them with China which is a thermonuclear Major Power? India needs to overcome the signal failure of Pokhran II to deliver the country a tested thermonuclear device. Massive retaliation against China is impossible in the absence of thermonuclear weapons. With China, the nuclear posture has to be re-examined in its entirety. And let’s try not to have the idiocy of NSG for the moment. It consumes the time and efforts that should be devoted to gaining a manifestly reliable and credible thermonuclear deterrent.