New Delhi: Contrarily increasing tensions with China which needed A. B. Vajpayee’s placatory visit nearly at the end of his term, the Pokhran II test did not yield the desired results for India. Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata Party government hoped that the nuclear test would somehow increase India’s prestige in the world. Nuclear weapons do not bring prestige. That might have been true in the early part of the Nuclear Age especially in the Cold War contest between the United States and Soviet Russia. Nuclear weapons could also be visualized as a deterrent to regime change. That was the principal motivation for the 1974 test and the reason for the nuclear quests of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and the regimes of Iran and North Korea lately. But India was past the apprehension of regime change when Vajpayee decided on the test.

There was a second almost laughable justification made for the test. This also found its way into Vajpayee’s letter to Bill Clinton. The architect of this justification was the late K. Subrahmanyam. He insisted that India had to test to bring Pakistan’s nuclear capability out of the closet. He could never explain with any conviction why the barely hidden deterrence of India and Pakistan was such a problem. The concealed deterrence of Israel might terrify its neighbours which had none. At any rate, the K. Subrahmanyam argument prevailed. This writer remembers arguing against it with anyone who would listen and, frankly, no one cared. This writer’s argument was simple. India’s test was a fait accompli. Having tested, it oughtn’t to publicize the threats from China and Pakistan. It ought to create a smokescreen as Indira Gandhi did in 1974 calling it a peaceful nuclear explosion. The BJP government and establishment, however, went berserk with joy with the test. Their extreme nationalism was whetted. L. K. Advani, who was not kept in the test loop, rose rather infamously to the occasion. He made the entirely specious claim that with India becoming a declared nuclear power, Pakistan could no longer continue its proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir. Madan Lal Khurana, who knew even less about nuclear weapons, went still more rabid in his excitement. On the immediate point that India’s nuclear weapons would somehow contain Pakistan, Parvez Musharraf proved them wrong a year later with the Kargil incursion. By then, Pakistan was a nuclear power as well. And it was indulging in open nuclear brinkmanship.

It is clear that Pakistan would have unconcealed its deterrent with India having done so a fortnight prior. But there was the slimmest possibility that Pakistan could have been stopped in its tracks. The United States had stepped in offering Pakistan an attractive conventional weapons’ package should it refrain from going nuclear. There would have been some conventional weapons imbalance on that account but nothing that India could not live with. But the advantage of India as the sole nuclear power in the subcontinent could not have been easily surpassed assuming nuclear weapons to fetch such advantages.

Strategic sense, however, had fled. Armed with the unwisdom of the likes of K. Subrahmanyam, the Indian establishment and the Bharatiya Janata Party goaded Pakistan to conduct a rival test. On hindsight, it would appear few on the Indian side expected Pakistan to respond so swiftly and decisively. When Pakistan tested two weeks later, there was stunned silence in India. The ultranationalist elements were shocked into realization that the law of unintended consequences had kicked in. In a matter of moments, Pakistan had attained military nuclear parity with India. That parity gave it cover to step up the proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir. Under the nuclear overhang since, Pakistan has led in provocations while India has been strategically paralyzed by the Pakistani deterrent. Pakistan has so rapidly and assiduously increased its inventory of nuclear weapons furthermore that another factor has come into play. Pakistan is immune to regime change. Indeed, the rest of the world has a desperate stake in keeping Pakistan stable and funded. Not in their wildest imagination could Indian security planners have conceived this end-state when they planned Pokhran II with minimum strategic forethought.

To be continued...

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