RPI Author Rajesh Rajagopalan: Nuclear Risks Shouldn’t Constrain India
Rajesh Rajagopalan, a participant in RPI’s Nuclear Debates in Asia and Worldviews of Aspiring Powers projects and professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, recently wrote an op-ed for The Economic Times where he argues that the risk of nuclear escalation shouldn’t constrain India from threatening small-scale military retaliation to what he views as provocations from Pakistan:
In the aftermath of yet another Pakistani transgression, we are back to the tired old arguments about whether or not India should be talking to Pakistan. Proponents argue that nothing has been gained whenever India stopped talking to Pakistan, as it did after every major provocation. Their opponents argue that dialogue has not stopped Pakistan’s provocations.
Both sides are right and therein lies the simple truth that New Delhi refuses to acknowledge: dialogue or the lack of it has little impact on Pakistan. The reason Pakistan continues to provoke is that India has eschewed any retaliation for fear of nuclear escalation. Because Pakistan does not fear Indian retaliation, India’s deterrence is dead. To prevent Pakistani provocations, India needs to resurrect its deterrence and that requires considering using military force.
Pakistan’s nuclearization has ended India’s ability to deter Islamabad from provocations. Consequently, Pakistan has provided unprecedented levels of support to terrorist groups, which includes not only terrorist attacks in India but also against the Indian mission in Afghanistan.
Fearing nuclear escalation, both the BJP and the UPA governments have limited their responses to diplomatic protests and calling off dialogue. These are ineffectual responses that only serve to illustrate Indian helplessness. Pakistan knows that India will eventually have to return to talks.
It is not as if Indian leadership has been unaware of the problem. After Kargil, then defense minister George Fernandes and army chief General VP Malik suggested that India could explore limited conventional war options that would punish Pakistan without risking escalation.
Unfortunately that idea has not been pursued. After Operation Parakram, the Indian Army proposed a “cold start” doctrine. It was a plan for faster mobilization because one lesson of Operation Parakram was that Indian military mobilization took very long, which allowed international pressure and strategic second-guessing to undermine the Indian leadership’s will to order a military retaliation. But Cold Start envisaged a much larger war and it might not be an appropriate response for anything but a catastrophic terrorist attack.
Also, Pakistan’s introduction of short-range tactical nuclear weapons has increased New Delhi’s apprehensions. In any case, at least formally, the Indian Army has discarded Cold Start.
Indian leaders have further undermined our deterrence by repeatedly proclaiming that they do not want war. This is the one point on which there is consensus in New Delhi but consensus is not wisdom. Even if war is not an option, taking it off the table is the height of strategic stupidity. As long as India is unable to threaten Pakistan with military retaliation, Pakistan has little incentive to stop supporting terrorist actions against India. Diplomacy provides few useful responses.
Stopping the dialogue is a short-term measure that will not deter Pakistan. Seeking international support is equally useless because even if the other powers support India diplomatically — which itself is a mighty big if considering Pakistan’s talent for leveraging its strategic location — it will have little impact on Pakistan, as they have repeatedly demonstrated. Diplomacy can aid military power but it cannot replace it.
India needs to consider all of its options, including the use of force. While force should not be the first option for all problems, force has to be an option at least in responding to attacks. The fear that any military operation would automatically result in nuclear escalation is half-baked wisdom from a superficial reading of Cold War history.
The nuclear relationship between Washington and Moscow was very different because both sides deployed nuclear weapons on a hair-trigger, which meant that the slightest disturbance had the potential to set off a nuclear conflagration.
That is not the situation in South Asia where neither side deploys ready-to-use nuclear weapons. Pakistan refuses to join India in adopting a no-first-use of nuclear weapons pledge, which is understandable, given their inferiority in conventional military strength.
But this is taken as an indication of Pakistan’s irrationality, which only strengthens Pakistan’s deterrence because it effectively paralyses the Indian leadership.
Pakistan might have a first-use doctrine but it is first-use as last resort, much as Israel keeps nuclear weapons to ensure its survival. First use does not mean Pakistan will lob nuclear bombs as soon as the first Indian soldier crosses the border. As long as Indian action does not threaten the survival of the Pakistani state, it is unlikely that Pakistan will reach for nuclear weapons.
India does have the option of engaging in limited military retaliation, especially in PoK. Civilian and military leaders need to jointly reconsider the Fernandes-Malik proposals so that military retaliatory options are available to deter Pakistan and, if deterrence fails, to respond to Pakistan’s provocations.
Without it, we will be condemned to repeat the facile dialogue-no dialogue debate after the next provocation, which is surely coming.
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