NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Prime ministerial frontrunner Narendra Modi said he was committed to a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons, seeking to assuage concern after his Hindu nationalist BJP party vowed to revise the nuclear doctrine if elected to power.
India declared itself a nuclear weapons state after carrying out tests in the summer of 1998, which were followed by tests by Pakistan. Since then both have been developing nuclear weapons and testing longer range missiles.
"It is necessary to be powerful - not to suppress anyone, but for our own protection," Modi said in an interview with the ANI television service.
But he said he would pursue a policy of continuity based on the approach of former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee who declared a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons after ordering the tests.
"No first use was a great initiative of Atal Bihari Vajpayee - there is no compromise on that. We are very clear. No first use is a reflection of our cultural inheritance," Modi told ANI.
His comments came a week after the BJP unveiled its manifesto, pledging to review the nuclear doctrine, whose two main pillars were a no first-use commitment and building a credible but minimum nuclear arsenal.
The pledge, to "study in detail India's nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times", gave no specifics but raised concerns among former U.S. diplomats that the policy of no first use would be abandoned. The State Department itself declined to comment.
Two sources involved in the drafting of the manifesto said the party wanted to reconsider the no first use policy in the wake of advances made by Pakistan in the area of tactical nuclear weapons.
Pakistan does not have a no first policy and is building nuclear weapons programme designed to deter India and neutralise its much larger conventional military.
India also has concerns about China, which has bigger military as well as more advanced strategic weapons arsenal. Some members of the strategic establishment said it had been 10 years since the doctrine had been released and it was time to revisit it.
Modi's party is leading the race to win the election and according to the latest opinion poll may even secure a simple majority in parliament, allowing it greater room in decision-making.
(Reporting by Aditya Kalra; Writing by Doug Busvine and Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Alison Williams)