End of nuclear celebration

Sorry folks, but Pakistan has spoiled our nuclear celebration. You thought our bomb made us a great power on par with the USA? No, we remain on par with Pakistan. You thought we had become high-tech geniuses? Sorry, we are not far ahead of Pakistan. You thought we could now incinerate Pakistan? Well, it can incinerate us too. No victory, just another draw.

The two sides have only proved that poor, corrupt nations can find it easier to explode nuclear bombs than supply basic needs to their citizens. Delhi-wallahs today are blocking roads and attacking electricity offices in protest against the current power shortage. Irate housewives ask what use a nuclear bomb is if citizens cannot get electricity or water. Good question, no answer.

When India held its nuclear test, The Pioneer called it an ‘explosion of self-esteem.’ By that logic, Pakistan’s tests should have been hailed as ‘implosion of Indian self-esteem’, or at least ‘explosion of Pakistani self-esteem.’ Instead the headline was ‘Rogue copycats’.

Such hypocrisy wouId be laughable but for the jingoistic mind-set it represents.

Even if the government was determined to carry out a nuclear test, this should have been followed by cool words for damage control. Our immediate concern should have been to mend fences with the west (to cut the cost of sanctions) and Pakistan (to ensure that both countries treated war as unthinkable suicide).

Instead we have a spree of jingoism that increases the chances of both accidental war and continued sanctions. BJP stalwarts like LK Advani, KL Sharma and Madan Lal Khurana have uttered war cries and threatened more aggressive policies in Kashmir including pre-emptive action against terrorist training camps on the other side of the border.

Prime Minister Vajpayee has spoken some soothing words. One party spokesman claims that damage control is very much in progress. Few will be convinced, least of all the BJP’s own cadres burning Pepsi and Coke trucks in Gujarat. Whatever Vajpayee’s claims, in practice the BJP has whipped up domestic frenzy.

The consequences, (some highlighted by Raja Mohan of The Hindu in a TV show), are that India’s security has been jeopardised rather than improved.

1. By linking the tests to Pakistan’s aid to militants in Kashmir, BJP politicians may have unwittingly internationalised the Kashmir issue.

What Pakistan has failed to achieve for decades may have been accomplished by the BJP. Do not be surprised to see the world bring Kashmir into the disarmament agenda and UN.

2. India is suddenly seen as a dangerous place where freaks need to be taken seriously.

The BJP manifesto said it would induct nuclear weapons but was silent on testing, so foreign analysts assumed it would deploy weapons without testing. When disproved, the analysts resolved not to underestimate freaks again.

So they are now monitoring the statement of every VHP fire-eater and roadside baba, just in case he represents the true India. The credibility of BJP liberals has eroded, making damage control more difficult.

3. Nawaz Sharif has imposed an emergency in Pakistan, suspending civil rights. This is a side-effect of India’s own explosion. An autocratic Pakistan is more dangerous than a democratic one.

It also gives advance warning that jingoism in India may be used one day to suspend democracy and secularism.

4. Pakistan will slide into bankruptcy, since it it is too weak to withstand sanctions for long. Do not rejoice in your neighbour’s woes. Fear danger from a weak country in chaos which also has nuclear weapons.

5. Jingoism and war-cries on both sides of the border have made the subcontinent risky for all investment, domestic and foreign.

The Karachi Stock Exchange has plunged 40 per cent, trading is suspended, the accounts of FIIs are frozen. Expect India to be affected by financial contagion.

The finance minister may offer goodies galore in his budget, but tax incentives rarely work in a potential war zone.

Many nervous investors will wait and watch, and so will nervous consumers.

If lower investment and consumer spending depresses GDP growth by just one per cent, that means Rs 18, 000 crore lost. Thus erosion of confidence can impose much higher penalties than economic sanctions.

6. The risk of war, however small, is being increased by jingoism. Threats to bomb training camps for terrorists in Pakistan must be avoided: even a single bombing attempt could escalate into nuclear conflict.

The biggest danger is not premeditated attack. It is unwitting escalation.

A Ghauri missile may take no more than three minutes to hit Delhi. Imagine Vajpayee having his evening peg. An aide bursts in with an urgent message. ‘Can’t it wait?’ asks Vajpayee. ‘No sir, an unidentified object has crossed the Punjab border. If it is a missile, we have only two minutes left.’

‘My God,’ says Vajpayee, ‘check that it is not a false alarm.’ The aide replies,’ But sir, there are only 90 seconds left’.

‘Call the Cabinet, call Abdul Kalam’ says Vajpayee. ‘But sir,’ says the aide’ the bomb will hit us in 60 seconds, and it will take that much time just to release all the safety devices on our own bomb.’

Mr Vajpayee pales, but has no choice. He has to press the button. Maybe it is a false alarm, but there is no time to get on the hot line to Nawaz Sharif. And even if he gets through, will Sharif really tell him the truth? No, he has to press the button. Up goes the rocket, down comes the bomb. Both countries turn into radioactive rubble.

I hear supposed experts wanting to create command-and-control systems, complicated ways of deploying nuclear weapons with safeguards against accidental or panicky use.

But when the warning time is so short, can anybody really collect the evidence and weigh it? Is any worthwhile consultation really possible? Can much reliance be placed even on a hotline talk with the other?

I doubt it. In practice, the leaders on both sides will press the button with their fingers crossed.,

So, do not focus on creating accident-proof or panic-proof systems. Instead try to create a new political vocabulary on both sides of the border. Let politicians on both sides tell their people that nuclear war is mutual suicide, no matter how many bombs you have, and is simply not an option.

Let politicians say that even conventional war is unthinkable, since it can escalate quickly. Do not place faith in a no-first-use treaty: any side losing a conventional war is bound to use nuclear weapons, regardless of any treaty. So, no matter what our disputes are, let us be clear that these will have to resolved by means other than war.

This will not be achieved by offering no-war pacts as a form of one-upmanship (few people remember that the Simla Agreement already has a no-war clause). What we need is a new political vocabulary, adopted by all parties, that defines war as unwinnable and unthinkable. That will be the ultimate confidence-building measure.

What do you think?