The meaning of Pokhran and Chagai

Tit for tat: "While India’s decision to test was a proactive one, the Pakistani call to test was a reaction.” File photo of Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Pokhran.

Tit for tat: "While India’s decision to test was a proactive one, the Pakistani call to test was a reaction.” File photo of Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Pokhran.  

Eighteen years after India and Pakistan tested nuclear devices in Pokhran and Chagai on May 11, 13, and 28, 1998, there remains a yawning gap in perception on what this nuclear “deterrent” spells for the other country.

It must be remembered that while India’s decision to test was a proactive one, the Pakistani call to test was a reaction, a response. Had India not gone first, it would have been nearly impossible for Islamabad to test.

Though nuclear devices were clearly available to Pakistan for some time, the country’s permanent establishment lay low, choosing a policy of ambiguity or suggesting through the media that they possessed a nuclear deterrent.

An emboldened neighbour

To my mind, there is a direct link between Pakistan’s publicly demonstrated acquisition of nuclear weapons capability and its decision to try and alter the Line of Control in Kargil in 1999, an attempt that came a cropper.

Emboldened by levelling its nuclear score with India, Pakistan allowed the hijackers of Indian Airlines flight IC-814, and the hostages released by India, to enter and disappear within its territory in December 1999.

In November 2008, Pakistan’s permanent establishment watched as 10 members of the Lashkar-e-Taiba launched a sea-borne attack on India’s commercial capital of Mumbai, killing 164 people.

There have, of course, been numerous suggestions and assertions that Pakistan’s deep state was behind both the hijacking of IC-814 and the murder and mayhem that was let loose in Mumbai.

Needless to say, in India’s hawkish theatre of belief, the Pakistani state is directly responsible for both the hijacking in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure as well as for the Mumbai attack under Manmohan Singh’s watch.

From the Indian side, a massive military build-up followed the December 2001 attack on Parliament House in New Delhi, for which the Vajpayee government directly held the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad responsible. Operation Parakram, as the Indian build-up was known, ended when India chose to withdraw its troops in October 2002.

Coming a couple of years after Mr. Vajpayee’s External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh escorting wanted terrorist Masood Azhar to Kandahar for release during the IC-814 hijacking, Operation Parakram was intended to show that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s handling of national security issues was different from that of the Congress — and when it came to dealing with Pakistan.

It’s evident that as we approach the two-decade mark after the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests, both countries, especially Pakistan, have indulged in acts of conventional military provocation, reflected in the mini Kargil war.

Equally, the bilateral dialogue, supposed to discuss conventional and nuclear confidence-building measures, has yielded nothing tangible in the nearly 20 years that have gone by. There has been a discussion or two, but beyond exchanging a list of their nuclear installations — an annual routine — nothing new has happened. In fact, this agreement on non-attack of each other’s nuclear installations is of 1988 vintage.

When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said in May 1998 that he had settled scores with India, he clearly meant that strategic parity had been finally established between India and Pakistan. Given the well-catalogued measures that Pakistan took to achieve this capability, the pride in the declaration was evident.

For long, Pakistan has been talking about a strategic restraint regime between India and Pakistan, an idea that hasn’t gained much traction. Islamabad’s objective in proposing this regime is essentially aimed at limiting the acquisition of conventional weapons by India.

America in South Asia

American involvement or entanglement in the India-Pakistan nuclear equation has been evident after May 11, 1998. Senior Clinton administration official Strobe Talbott was sent to Islamabad with many inducements on offer to prevent Pakistan from testing. It was a mission designed to fail.

The strong American/Western response to the tests even resulted in a June 1998 joint statement by the U.S. and Chinese presidents pledging to forestall further “instability” in South Asia. Given Mr. Vajpayee’s efforts to woo the U.S. in the wake of the nuclear tests, this American-Chinese entente to contain India marked a major failure of India’s post-test diplomacy. The China carrot dangled before the U.S. as India’s reason to test didn’t seem to enthuse President Bill Clinton, an attitude that was to dramatically change after Kargil (1999) and President George W. Bush’s election.

In the path of estrangement to engagement, President Bush’s decision to secure a waiver for India to engage in international nuclear commerce in 2008 must be seen as a major shift in U.S. perceptions about Delhi. Ten years after President Clinton teamed up with China to contain India, President Bush made a call to his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao to end Beijing’s opposition to the nuclear waiver — completing the full circle in transforming Indo-U.S. ties.

There’s little doubt that the May 1998 nuclear tests conducted by India, signalling its big-power intent, came with a regime keen to ally with the U.S., a signal that was clearly picked up by Washington after initial resistance. The economic opportunity presented by India accompanied by massive American arms sales to Delhi, posited against a dimming Pakistani economy and the constant presence of terrorist groups, was a clear inducement to better relations.

A recent remark made by President Barack Obama around the recent Nuclear Security Summit on April 3 that India and Pakistan, as they develop military doctrines, must not “continually” move in the “wrong direction” indicates he doesn’t share his predecessor’s enthusiasm for what amounts to a de facto acceptance of India’s nuclear weapon status. In President Obama’s second term, U.S.-Pakistan relations have rebounded and there’s some public appreciation for new steps taken by Pakistan for the safety and security of its nuclear weapons.

However, the clear and present danger to the subcontinent stems from the intent behind Pakistan’s piling up of nuclear weapons. These weapons are not for show, and key functionaries in Pakistan have threatened their use against India. Equally, an extremist mindset in India in taking national security decisions must be eschewed.

India’s hawks naively believe that Pakistan intends its nuclear arsenal merely as a deterrent. If a Kargil-type scenario happens in reverse and the conflict escalates to new fronts, India and the world would not want to test the rationality of Pakistan’s nuclear decision-makers.

Exchanging information on each other’s nuclear doctrines and a robust, consistent discussion on possible nuclear confidence-building measures, and quiet attempts to arrest the tide of sliding bilateral relations could be the best scenario on the 18th anniversary of Pokhran-II.

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Printable version | Aug 12, 2020 6:04:14 AM |

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