As tensions between India and Pakistan simmer over the deteriorating situation in Kashmir, the ever-present specter of nuclear war continues to dominate present discourse. This has been apparent in the way both India and Pakistan have continued to leverage the threat of using nuclear weapons at each other, keeping well in mind the effects of these threats on both domestic and international audiences. Last month’s statement by India’s Defense Minister, on the reexamination of India’s No First Use (NFU) policy presents a worrying case in point. Taken in the context of the last 4-5 years however, this statement represents a growing trend in which India’s foremost leaders have come to institutionalize a policy of nuclear brinkmanship against Pakistan through increasingly bellicose rhetoric. Not to mention one of the world’s most sustained and costly military modernization programs that has been publicized as greatly expanding India’s power projection capabilities. Capabilities which in turn not only extend to India’s Western Borders but to the entire South Asian and Indian Ocean regions.
Together, both the rhetoric as well as the unprecedented defense spending are arguably aimed at projecting a more assertive and militarily capable India. An India that is fed up from playing second fiddle to a rising China, and from being limited from its true potential by a recalcitrant Pakistan. As such, this current manifestation of India is almost a farcy from what several analysts had described five years back. This was when the likes of Happymon Jacob had termed India as a ‘reluctant power’ facing a rising superpower i.e. China and a ‘revisionist power’ in Pakistan. Instead, as evident in the BJP’s nuclear brinkmanship, it is India now that is revising the status-quo in an entirely reckless and single-minded fashion. Especially during a time when both Pakistan and China have openly declared their focus to be on shared economic development at a wider regional level, what India’s incessant saber-rattling has done is essentially estrange itself further from two strategically and potentially crucial neighbors.
While a large segment of the Indian population may celebrate this new-found panache and daring which the BJP government is projecting as part of its nationalist ethos, this approach has in fact led to an unprecedented level of destabilization throughout the region. One wonders whether this ‘devil may care’ approach of the current Indian government is the kind of assertiveness and regional leadership that even moderate analysts such as the above-mentioned Mr. Jacob had argued for five years back. After all, even with respect to countering Pakistan, many in India have long called for developing closer ties with China particularly keeping in view a long-term strategic perspective. A view that is built more on regional stability and cooperation as opposed to pandering to a faux sense of supremacy.
Yet, instead of such elusive stability, what this Indian state has done is willfully stoke fears of war. All despite the fact that it is still not able to dominate Pakistan within the conventional and sub-conventional realms. At least not on the global stage where the will to project military force is equally matched by the ability to do so. This for instance was more than evident in February’s aerial engagement between the two countries following which India was left considerably bruised and shaken.
While many in Pakistan have taken this to be the successful manifestation of a viable conventional deterrent capability, it has simultaneously increased the risks of India resorting to a pre-emptive or escalatory nuclear strike as the preferred means of assuring military victory. What’s more, if Pakistani strategists are to go by the current rhetoric and signaling coming out of India, the risks of such a strike seem to stem more from a vain an entitled sense of supremacy, rather than any real measured, or calculated approach to nuclear deterrence and/or strategy. Such ensuing ambiguity and uncertainty add immensely to the already heightened risks of an accidental or even miscalculated step towards the nuclear tipping point.
Ironically, the only option Pakistan has been left with is to signal its own intent and commitment to the countervalue targeting of Indian cities. This has been emphasized in all of Pakistan’s most recent ballistic missile tests, which instead of showcasing a newly acquired capability have been carried out as training launches of what already comprise its nuclear arsenal. This includes last week’s training launch of the Ghaznavi Missile System, which stands as one of the first SRBMs inducted into service by the Pakistan military. Designed as a Scud type ballistic missile that is accurate, road mobile and capable of hypersonic speeds, this most recent test is aimed at showcasing its potency as a second-strike platform, capable of challenging even some of the most sophisticated Ballistic Missile Defense Systems currently deployed by India. In effect, a stark reminder that all Pakistan needs to do is to get a few of these off the ground to negate any advantage that a counter-force or pre-emptive strike may seem to serve India.
Hence, while the threat of Kashmir as a nuclear flashpoint remains as ominous as ever for the most densely populated region in the world, it is extremely worrying to think that either Pakistani or Indian policymakers would consider nuclear war-fighting as a viable means to victory. Whereas Pakistan’s stance on the use of nuclear weapons has been clearly stated as a means of deterring a large-scale conventional assault for the sake of regional stability, the repeated allusions to a first or pre-emptive strike by Indian policy-makers seem to be geared more at spreading fear, shock and awe amidst the general population. Of all the fears the world once had over a North Korean, Iraqi or even Irani fanatic gaining hold of an atomic weapon, it is a wonder how Indian policymakers are unabashedly getting away with playing the part of the unstable and unpredictable nuclear armed zealots of the world.