Four years ago this month, nuclear explosions in the Rajasthan desert and in the Baluchistan mountains ended the long period in which India and Pakistan had unwisely acquired nuclear military capacity but had nevertheless been wise enough to refrain from translating it into actual weapons. The blasts at Pokharan and Chagai changed the terms of war and peace in the subcontinent, and in the world.
Never before had two powers so apt to go to war faced each other with such weapons. Proxy encounters aside, Russians and Americans had never fought, and when the Americans and Chinese clashed in Korea only one side had the bomb. But here were two countries that had fought repeatedly since independence, and which were still head to head in Kashmir, adding nuclear bombs and missiles to their armories. Even if they stopped short of complete weaponization and deployment, they could still swiftly prepare a nuclear strike, as Pakistan apparently did in 1999 at the time of the Kargil fighting.
Risky as the situation was before September 11, the danger deepened as India and Pakistan entered into an intense competition to benefit from the shifts in American policy which followed the twin towers attack. The Indian government had sought a closer engagement with the US and, in spite of the sanctions imposed after the tests, had benefited from an American tilt toward New Delhi underlined by President Clinton's visit to India in March 2000. This American connection was important to the Bharatiya Janata party, which leads the Indian ruling coalition, for practical and ideological reasons. It put Pakistan at a disadvantage, it fitted with the BJP's neo-liberal economic policies, and it played to the BJP vision, or illusion, of India as a great power that could speak to the US on equal terms.
September 11 brought instant American attention to Pakistan, restoring an old relationship, and turning the aid and trade tap back on for the Musharraf regime. Pakistan's disadvantage was ended, to India's considerable annoyance. But India's relationship with the US was also deepened. South Asia had become what the BJP had always wished it to be, an area of great strategic importance to the US, and India was by far the biggest and strongest state in that region. Atal Behari Vajpayee, the prime minister, could portray himself as a leader in the campaign against terrorism. So, of course, could Pervez Musharraf. A dangerous courtship ensued as Washington wooed both India and Pakistan, and the two in turn courted Washington. Both looked to the US to coerce the rival suitor.
The Indian government saw the possibility of ending Pakistani support for rebels in Kashmir, without the necessity for any concessions on its part. Musharraf saw the exact opposite. The right moves might lead to some internationalization of the Kashmir dispute and to India being forced to agree to arrangements, perhaps over elections later this year, that could be presented at home as at least not a defeat for Pakistan. The instrument with which India chose to press Pakistan was a mass mobilization that, quite apart from the danger of war, led to grave strains and costs for both countries but was particularly painful for the much poorer Pakistan.
On the Pakistani side, Musharraf limited his efforts to restrain the militant groups long involved in Kashmir operations. Leaders were arrested only to be released or kept under nominal detention. Whether this is because he is too weak to take stronger measures or because, in spite of his pledges, he wishes to maintain an active program of what India calls cross-border terrorism is not clear. The distinction between the "moral, political and diplomatic support" which Pakistan insists it will continue to offer to Kashmiris, and the military support and aid to extremist groups it says it will not, would be hard to maintain even for a regime more in control.
But it is difficult to see how Musharraf's purposes are served by incidents such as the recent attack on the Indian army camp near Jammu, or by the earlier attacks on the Indian and the Kashmir parliaments. Proof of his wanting or permitting such attacks is so far missing, which ought to be a consideration when India considers its responses.
But it seems that the Indian government prefers to think that Musharraf can be made to suppress the militants by the direct threat of war, and indirectly through American pressure on Pakistan. The result is the bizarre and dangerous combination of a conventional military build-up which is almost first world war in its scale and nature with the nuclear capacity which the two sides now possess. Keeping this mass of men and guns on alert while avoiding local incidents or exchanges of fire escalating into real fighting is naturally difficult, and the odds are that it will sooner or later go wrong.
Even if the immediate threat of war may not be as great as some think, the risk will not go away until many of these men are stood down and alert levels reduced. This would be the case even if the Indian government had no plans for offensive action. If it does have such plans, it is easy to see how a limited operation, say to take out bases in Pakistan-held Kashmir, could become something bigger, and conceivably have nuclear consequences.
Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik wrote in the preface to their outstanding study of how and why India and Pakistan came to acquire nuclear weapons that nuclearization induced a mood of complacency in both countries, with some political and military leaders believing it allows for more brinkmanship rather than less. Their book argues convincingly that the BJP authorized nuclear testing for essentially irrational reasons. The bomb was a trophy the BJP wanted and it was "bent on crossing the nuclear threshold regardless of the strategic environment." It was also bent on provoking Pakistan into tests of its own which would serve as a retrospective justification for the Indian decision.
The glee with which these "achievements" were celebrated was striking. "Megatons of prestige" proclaimed a typical Indian headline at the time of the tests, while in Pakistan nuclear "success" was marked by the construction of supposed replicas of the Chagai range on traffic circles in big cities. This suggests that at the popular level, too, there is little understanding of what nuclear war would mean, or that such understanding has been undermined by official propaganda.
The result is that governments and opposition parties both contend with popular demands for "action" and play with such demands, as a deeply unpopular BJP is doing today in India. Vajpayee vacillates, bellicose one day and restrained the next. Musharraf does the same in minor key, and both try to manipulate the western envoys. They were rescued by outsiders once before, at the time of Kargil, and that may well happen again. But the reality that both countries have not yet faced is that their problem is not Kashmir, nor terrorism, nor even the more general enmity which estranges them from each other, but the bomb itself.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002