India and Pakistan have travelled a long distance since testing nuclear devices in 1998. Back then, government officials and leading strategic thinkers on the subcontinent expressed confidence that these tests would have stabilising effects. Going public with the Bomb would relieve anxieties and facilitate diplomatic efforts to normalise relations. In countries where many lived in poverty that placed a premium on economic growth, all that was needed was minimum, credible deterrence.
It’s worth recalling these aspirations 15 years later, during which Pakistan and India have fought one limited war and have experienced two severe crises. Their nuclear arsenals have grown steadily as diplomacy has faltered. JN Dixit, former Indian foreign secretary and national security adviser, was wrong when he wrote that nuclear testing “removes complexes, suspicions, and uncertainties about each other’s nuclear capabilities … [and] could persuade the governments of India and Pakistan to discuss bilateral disputes in a more rational manner”.
General K Sundarji, India’s most daring military strategist was also wrong when he wrote that, “A mutual minimum nuclear deterrent will act as a stabilising factor.” Air Commodore Jasjit Singh felt similarly. He predicted that, “Deterrence will continue, but on a higher level. I don’t think we are going to see a slide toward instability.”
Pakistan’s strategic analysts were in agreement. General KM Arif forecast that “The nuclear option will promote regional peace and create stability”. Retired foreign secretary and soon-to-be foreign minister Abdul Sattar concurred: “Attainment of nuclear capabilities by Pakistan and India has helped promote stability and prevented dangers of war … Self-interest itself should persuade Pakistan and India to exercise due restraint.” Prime Ministers AB Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif echoed these sentiments.
These high hopes were based on false premises. Optimists discounted domestic politics and institutions pushing for more bombs and better ways to deliver them. The abstract notion of minimum, credible deterrence had little chance against growing threat perceptions. Another false premise was that diplomatic success could be midwifed by devices with horrific destructive powers. In every case where states felt compelled by security concerns to cross the nuclear threshold, their sense of insecurity only grew when a nuclear competition ensued.
A third false premise was that diplomacy could somehow be given a sustainable boost, just because of the Bomb. Prime Minister Vajpayee tried to jump-start improved relations by travelling over Partition’s blood-soaked ground to Lahore, the most symbolic act of reconciliation thus far in the subcontinent’s nuclear history. But the Bomb is utterly indifferent to its uses, whether for peace-making or war fighting. So far, those who have sought reconciliation have been easily trumped by others who have sought military advantage under the nuclear umbrella or the disruption of diplomatic initiatives. Vajpayee’s attempt at Lahore was torpedoed by the Kargil war. Far less ambitious attempts at reconciliation by subsequent prime ministers in India and Pakistan have been foiled by spectacular acts of terror on Indian soil.
Engineering missiles is easy compared with engineering diplomatic accords. Accolades are given to those who do the former; brickbats await those who try the latter. Since the 1998 tests, India and Pakistan have together flight-tested 17 types of missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Not all of these missiles will actually carry nuclear warheads and missile types will be consolidated over time. But by any reckoning, 17 is a very large number — one that makes a mockery of the promises made in 1998 to pursue minimum, credible deterrence.
In contrast, the number of tangible diplomatic accomplishments since 1998 has been paltry. In 2003, Pakistan and India agreed to a ceasefire along the Kashmir divide. This agreement has often been breached, but remains essential. In 2005, another agreement was reached to provide prior notification of ballistic missile flight tests, followed by another in 2007 to provide notification of nuclear accidents. Other efforts have been made to increase cross-border trade, but progress has been beset by the usual bickering over linkages and conditionalities. Little of substance has been accomplished since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, whose planners have demonstrated stronger resolve than government officials who wish to improve India-Pakistan relations.
A new Indian coalition government, regardless of its composition, can be expected to try again to improve relations with Pakistan. Significantly increased direct trade and nuclear risk reduction will again become possible. The likelihood of new explosions in India that can be traced back to Pakistan will also grow. The hopes expressed back in 1998 will once again be tested. Will national leaders finally have the resolve to fulfill these promises and how will they manage to deal with spoilers?
Published in The Express Tribune, December 27th, 2013.