The apocalyptic profile of the dreaded nuclear weapon was unambiguously demonstrated to the world in August 1945 when the first such bomb was dropped by the United States on Hiroshima in Japan. The world has never been the same after that event. The ‘bomb', as the nuclear weapon is euphemistically referred to, has been the focus of the global strategic debate and related state policies. During the Cold War decades, these matters seemed to be relevant only to the U.S. and the erstwhile USSR and their military allies.
By 1964, the world had five declared nuclear weapon states (NWS), when China joined the bomb club as it were — and, at the time, the nth state exigency was avidly debated, meaning that with the passage of time and the spread of nuclear technology, the nuclear weapon would proliferate to the nth state. But was this a desirable exigency?
The high priest of the ‘more-is-better school' Kenneth Waltz advanced this proposition in 1981 in his seminal paper “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better,” and this advocacy was stoutly rejected with ecclesiastical fervour by the anti-proliferation school, which predicted all kinds of dire consequences, including the end of humanity, should the bomb spread as envisaged by Ken Waltz.
In this techno-strategic turbulence was conceived the NPT (nuclear non-proliferation treaty) in the early 1970s, and by the end of the Cold War — in the early 1990s — France and China, the last of the five NWS, formally joined the NPT. Progressively, most of the global community joined this regime as non-NWS, since it served their national interests.
However, the two South Asian neighbours, India and Pakistan — as also Israel — stayed out for the same reasons: the perception and conviction about how their core national interest would be best served. And, in 1998, India and Pakistan exploded their own ‘bombs' and became de-facto states with nuclear weapons, SNW — but not NWS — in the lexicon of the NPT. Has the ‘bomb' made the South Asian region's security environment more stable, or less? Are the post-May 1998 status of India and Pakistan and the deeply troubled bilateral relationship escalation resistant? These are the questions Ganguly and Kapur address in a commendable fashion in this slim volume.
They provide a lucid account of the bomb in relation to India and Pakistan and take contrasting positions. Ganguly subscribes to the stability argument among horizontal proliferators, while elucidating the specificity of the South Asian predicament — which is a nuanced variation of the Waltz formulation.
Kapur highlights the many complexities that abound in this Indo-Pak nuclear dyad and veers towards the strategic pessimism position. The texture of a robust debate, which is maintained throughout, accords the book a certain pace that is reader-friendly.
The theme is discussed in three periods of time: from the late 1980s, which is the region's nuclear past (when Pakistan beat India to acquire the bomb with China's active but covert support); from the 1999 Kargil war to the Mumbai tragedy of 2008; and the future, which is fraught with uncertainty. This provides an appropriate temporal context to interrogate the region's many nuclear nettles.
Both Ganguly and Kapur are admirably cogent and, for all the seeming divergences, their positions are reconciled with predictable caveats in the final chapter. “Both of us agree that nuclear weapons proliferation will not lead to the deliberate outbreak of large-scale war in South Asia…we differ, however, on the importance that we assign to the possibility that catastrophic conflict could occur…”
The book draws attention also to the WMD-terrorism linkage that Pakistan has exploited. But how was the regional security environment brought to this pass? Who aided and abetted the Pakistani bomb? When and where does ‘South' morph into ‘Southern' in the strategic grid of Asia? These are areas that could be usefully examined for a better comprehension of the dilemma of the sorcerer's apprentice a la Goethe that the authors invoke and hope for a “happy ending”. But as Hiroshima so unambiguously demonstrated, even a single bomb is one too many and now the non-state entity appears determined to acquire such macro-lethality.