However one looks at its genesis and its remarkably inept handling by New Delhi, the Kargil crisis highlights, as nothing else, the sub-continent’s strategic volatility and the fragility of the Lahore process. If the Indian army had to wait till May 6 to be informed of the unprecedentedly large-scale intrusion by a shepherd, and then took six days to report this to the defence ministry, and if the ministry two days later still said the infiltrators only occupied “remote and unheld areas”, then there is something deeply wrong with our security decision-making. The sudden switch from smugness and inaction to high-profile air strikes with their high-risk escalation potential testifies to the same flaws. One year after Pokharan-II, these put a huge question-mark over nuclearisation’s claimed gains. The Bomb has comprehensively failed to raise India’s stature, strengthen our claim to a Security Council seat, expand the room for independent policy-making, or enhance our security.
India stands morally and politically diminished: a semi-pariah state to be equated with Pakistan, and periodically reminded of Security Council Resolution 1172. Most Third World countries see India as contradictory: a nation that for 50 years rightly criticised the hypocrisy of the Nuclear Club, only to join it; a country that cannot adequately feed its people, but has hegemonic global ambitions. Our neighbours, crucial to our security, see us as an aggressive, discontented state that violated its own long- standing doctrines without a security rationale.
After prolonged talks with the U.S., in which we put our “non- negotiable” security up for discussion, India remains a minor, bothersome, factor in Washington’s game-plan as a non-nuclear weapons-state. South Asia’s nuclearisation has enabled Washington to grant Pakistan what Islamabad has always craved, and which New Delhi has always denied it, viz parity with India. Today, India and Pakistan act like America’s junior partners. Washington last August drafted both to smash the unity of the Non-Aligned in the Conference on Disarmament on linking FMCT talks with the five NWSs agreeing to discuss nuclear disarmament. If nuclearisation had enhanced our capacity for independent action, we would not have been mealy-mouthed on the U.S. bombing of Sudan and Iraq nor capitulated to unreasonable U.S. demands on patents. Nuclearisation has put India on the defensive in SAARC and ASEAN, in NAM and the World Bank. Damage control remains the main preoccupation of our diplomacy one year after the mythical “explosion of self-esteem”. Worse, nuclearisation has drawn India into dangerous rivalry with Pakistan and China. India has eight times more fissile material than Pakistan. But in nuclear, more isn’t better. The truth is, India has become for the first time vulnerable to nuclear attacks on a dozen cities, which could kill millions, against which we are wholly defenceless.
By embracing the “abhorrent” doctrine of nuclear deterrence, we have committed what we ourselves used to describe as a “crime against humanity” This article of faith assumes that adversaries have symmetrical objectives and perceptions; they can inflict “unacceptable” damage on each other; and will behave rationally, 100 per cent of the time. These assumptions are dangerously wrong. India-Pakistan history is replete with asymmetrical perceptions, strategic miscalculation, and divergent definitions of “unacceptable”. For fanatics, even a few Hiroshimas are not “unacceptable”. Deterrence breaks down for a variety of reasons: misreading of moves, false alerts, panic, and technical failures. The U.S. and USSR spent over $900 billion (or three times our GDP) on sophisticated command and control systems to prevent accidental, unintended or unauthorised use of nuclear weapons. But the Cold War witnessed over 10,000 near-misses. Each could have caused devastation. Gen. Lee Butler, who long headed the U.S. Strategic Command, says it was not deterrence, but “God’s grace”, that prevented disaster.
Generally disaster-prone India and Pakistan will have no reliable command and control systems for years. Their deterrence is ramshackle, if not ram-bharose. A nuclear disaster is substantially, qualitatively, more probable in South Asia than it ever was between the Cold War rivals. Kargil starkly highlights this. It would be suicidal for India and Pakistan to deploy nuclear weapons and then “manage” their rivalry. They must never manufacture, induct or deploy these weapons. India must not erase her own memory. For decades, she correctly argued that deterrence is illegal, irrational, strategically unworkable, unstable, and leads to an arms race. The “minimum deterrent” proposition does not weaken this argument’s force. Minimality is variable and subjective, determined not unilaterally, but in relation to adversaries. Embracing deterrence means entering a bottomless pit. That is why the NWSs’ “hard-nosed” realists ended up amassing overkill arsenals–enough to destroy the world 50 times. The danger that India could get drawn into an economically ruinous and strategically disastrous nuclear arms race, especially with China, is very real.
Consider the larger truth. Nuclear weapons do not give security. Because of their awesome power, their use, even threat of use, is determined less by military, than by political, factors. That is why America cannot translate its enormous atomic prowess into real might. Nuclear weapons have never won wars or decisively tilted military balances. Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Falklands, the Balkans, all expose their a-strategic nature. They are not even effective instruments of blackmail. State after state, from tiny Cuba to China, has defied nuclear blackmail attempts. Nuclear weapons are false symbols of prestige. But they are ruinously expensive. To build and maintain a tiny arsenal, about a fifth of China’s, will cost about Rs. 50,000 crores. This will further inflate our bloated military budget. Already, New Delhi spends twice as much on the military as on health, education and social security put together.
With Pokharan-II, and now Kargil, Kashmir stands internationalised. It is widely seen as a potential flashpoint for a nuclear confrontation. Largely symbolic events like Lahore, while welcome, do not alter the causes or conditions of Indo- Pakistan rivalry. The Lahore agreements do not even commit the two to slow down nuclear and missile development, only to inform each other of their tests. Such limited confidence-building can easily collapse, as Kargil vividly demonstrates.
Add to this debit side the enormous social costs of militarism, tub-thumping jingoism and male-supremacist nationalism; of further militarisation of our science; legitimisation of insensate violence; and psychological insecurity among the young. The Pokharan balance-sheet looks a deep, alarming, red. But there is good news too: nuclear weapons aren’t popular. According to recent polls, 73 per cent of Indians oppose making or using them. After November’s “Pokharan-vs-Pyaaz” state elections, politicians know that nukes don’t produce votes. And now, Kargil should induce sobriety. For sanity’s sake, the nuclear genie should be put back into the bottle. What human agency can do, it can also undo.