Illustration: Soham Sen | ThePrint.in
Illustration: Soham Sen | ThePrint.in
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In early 2002, when India ordered full military mobilisation as part of ‘Operation Parakram’ following the Jaish-e-Mohammed attack on Parliament, Pervez Musharraf’s Pakistan responded with a mix of fright and bravado.

On 12 January, Musharraf made a conciliatory speech, and promised not to let his territory be used by any terrorist group. India didn’t de-escalate. At that point, a substantial asymmetry still existed between the two armed forces, especially in the air. Musharraf betrayed his fear and desperation by repeatedly talking about nuclear weapons.

To further his scare-mongering, he would routinely launch one missile test after another. Each of these new missiles was named after some medieval Muslim invader of India — Ghauri, Ghaznavi, Abdali, Babur and you can Google if there were more.

Nirupama Rao, later India’s ambassador to Beijing, Washington and foreign secretary, was then the spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs. At her usual daily briefing, she was asked for her reaction to these missile launches. Her reply is immortal and epic. All she said was, “We are not impressed.”

In four devastating words, she had made the world laugh at the Pakistani nuclear blackmail. She didn’t bother holding forth on how India might respond to Pakistani nukes. Those things, everybody understands. So just respond to such idiotic threats with the contempt they deserve.

The journalists at her briefing laughed. Next day, the media, Indian and global, stepped off the nuclear kerb. India had made its point without bothering to retaliate to juvenile nonsense with nonsense, or wasting any missiles in tit-for-tat tests.


Also read: India has called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff again, but Modi cannot become complacent


Musharraf was left frustrated and furious. Still seething at the insult, presumably because it was delivered by a woman, he said at a media interaction soon after, “what does that lady mean she is not impressed? These are serious weapons.” Or something to that effect.

The lesson is simple, and enduring. A nuclear threat was held out in 2002, in a war-like environment, by usual suspect Pakistan. It was neutralised with one clever yet deterrent diplomatic statement.

We call Pakistan the ‘usual suspect’ because, since 1987, it has made a habit of using its nukes as a pre-emptive threat. It is true, regrettably, that Pakistan achieved weaponisation of its nukes earlier than India. In spite of conducting Pokhran-1 far back in 1974, India had let its nuclear weapons programme languish. These days, it would be fashionable to blame only the Gandhi dynasty for it. And Indira Gandhi did indeed waste much time and focus because of her Emergency.

Following her, Morarji Desai was the only genuine and, frankly, disastrous, pacifist in our history. He saw nuclear weapons and espionage as utterly immoral.

Indira Gandhi’s second coming was consumed in internal strife, especially Assam and Punjab. Rajiv woke up to the threat and asymmetry during Operation Brasstacks. He launched the programme for full weaponisation. I have written in detail the story of how this came to fruition as the baton was passed between eight prime ministers. The first Pakistani nuclear threat, or just the suggestion of it in 1987, made India give up its strategic hesitations.

The next blackmail from Pakistan came while the gap was still in its favour, in the summer of 1990, and it is a well-documented story. Kashmir was going through its worst insurgency, Benazir Bhutto was threatening to chop Governor Jagmohan into pieces (usko hum jag-jag, mo-mo, han-han kar denge), forces were up with live ammunition, we were writing cover stories on war scenarios, and Pakistani foreign minister Sahabzada Yaqub Khan came visiting.

Don’t start a war now, he told his counterpart I.K. Gujral, or there will be a fire that consumes our rivers, forests, mountains, everything. Gujral’s response was again as classy and classic as you’d expect from an old-fashioned diplomat: “I don’t know what you are talking about, Yaqub sahib, lekin jin daryaon ka paani aapne piya hai, unka hee humne bhi piya hai. (I don’t know what you are talking about. But remember, we’ve been nurtured on the waters of the same rivers as you.)”


Also read: Why India is developing nuclear capability beyond what is required for retaliation


This was again the language of deterrence. Softly spoken, yet effective. These events have also been documented in detail by American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, then deputy NSA Robert Gates, and in a remarkable book, Critical Mass: The Dangerous Race for Superweapons by NBC’s Bob Windrem and Ed Burrows, and even my journalistic writings in that period.

Vajpayee ignored all nuclear talk during Kargil. But, compulsive bullies that they are, the Pakistani military again tried this on the day of the Balakot attacks. Its bigmouth spokesperson Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor said a meeting of the National Command Authority was called. And, he added with a smirk, “you know what that means”. I presume somebody knocked him on the head soon after and he, or anybody else, didn’t mention this again.

The 26-27 February crisis passed, pretty much as most India-Pakistan stand-offs do, leaving each side the space to claim victory with their respective, partisan public opinion. Nobody threatened Armageddon, nobody flashed any missiles. Please do not buy that fantasy of the “planned” 12 missile strikes. This is opium-den rumour. Both sides know the implications of launching even one ballistic missile. Whatever warhead it carries, the other will presume that it’s nuclear from the moment it is launched. That is why all ballistic missiles, in both countries, have been taken away from conventional forces and put under the charge of their respective strategic forces commands.

The fact is, the subcontinent’s nuclear deterrent worked again. When you draw the strategic balance sheet, India made a substantive gain of long-lasting value. It successfully raised the nuclear threshold. The fantasy of Pakistani pre-emptive nuke strikes is now dead and buried. India should savour this and plan both tactics and strategy going ahead accordingly.

What it surely doesn’t mean is that India should now start nuclear loose talk like Pakistan in the past. Nuclear weapons are serious business. You do not expect to ever use them, and all strategy aims at that. That is why the perils of making these a part of your campaign rhetoric, bringing in your own joyous festivals — Diwali for Narendra Modi or Shab-e-Baraat earlier by Musharraf — need to be understood. Nuclear powers are expected to be responsible, in deed and speech. Understated responsibility and strategic maturity has served India brilliantly, even post-Balakot. Narendra Modi has erred gravely in changing a successful script, and trivialising it in the campaign.


Also read: With Balakot, India both gained & lost an opportunity to push Pakistan to act against terror


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27 Comments Share Your Views

27 COMMENTS

  1. Modi ji’s comment was timely and to the point. It was very much needed. Sometimes one has to reply in the same language in which the other party is talking. You can’t always be decent & humble when you are dealing with an idiot.

  2. Shekharji has gone unstable .I have seen Mr
    Modis speech He was not talking loose on the contrary we don’t need your so called opinion .you can take sanyas from your so called journalism tag.People ate much more informed than you in this modern times.

  3. Usual left liberal pseudo sicklur zolawalas like Shekhar and NDTV started chest thumping with one indirect reference to nuclear weapons. It was a perfect election speech and nothing beyond. It was in a language which villagers understand and not for diplomatic consumption. The audience understood the context and that’s it. Shekhar should do analysis in national interest and not political commentary on Modi!!

    • > It was in a language which villagers understand and not for diplomatic consumption.
      And this kind of two-faced talk is good? Modi excels in hypocrisy, we all know that. but do bhakts have believe that it is the right thing to do?

  4. Mr Gupta is a celebrated chamcha of the Congress dynasty and viscerally opposed to BJP, especially Modi. His brand of political strategy vis-a-vis Pakistan has been a total failure. As mentioned by another contributor above the only language bullies understand is the same as the one they engage in! For decades India has behaved like a pussy and Pakistan has felt comfortable taking it for granted. Enough of Aman Ki Asha BS. Modi must not only talk tough but act tough. Pakistan must be compelled not to ever take India for granted. Only that approach may eventually lead to lasting peace! India must make the price of messing with India so punitive as to make them think twice! I think people of India respect this stance and will support it.

    • >Modi must not only talk tough but act tough.
      What an ignorant remark. please read-up on what use of nukes on pak will mean for india, especially places like gujrat and punjab.

      • Having devoted my Undergraduate studies to Quantum Mechanics I am not unaware of the implications of a nuclear war, nor was I suggesting that when I said Modi must act tough! My comment about acting tough was to never allow any Pak misadventure across the border to go unpunished and to make them really pay for it, not unlike the Balakot strike. In the past Indian Governments have remained impotent and confused about the message to be given to Pakistan. Modi’s use of rhetoric about nuclear capability is also a measured upping of the ante by him to warn Pakistan that their threats to be first to attack with nuclear weapons in the event they face a conventional engagement will not stymie India’s reaction to their insurgency and that issue had to be put to rest. If you or Mr Gupta really think that Modi is a gung-ho trigger happy nuclear warrior then that displays a (deliberate ?) lack of understanding of him or just because he happens to be Modi. Either way Indians must realise that their country will be much more robustly protected by Modi and his talk tough act tough approach. The other approaches have been tried for nearly 70 years and have not worked. The Gazwa e Hind has been declared since decades and India has had no counter strategy except going round the global fora and whine about it, begging their help to curb Pakistan. One other method in which Modi can act tough is by encouraging already existing strong dissidence in Baluchistan. That would mean Pakistan will have to shift their assets to that area and also place restraints on the CEPEC Project with China. We are not engaged in a cricket match with Pakistan! Sooner the likes of Mr Gupta realise that the better. People of India already have!

  5. You talk to strongmen in a language they understand. Obama couldn’t and didn’t get along with Kim Jong-Un, Trump can be tough and still negotiate with him. Being pusillanimous with military dictators hasn’t worked till now. As much as witty press statements are appreciated by the English language press, and the western response to them minutely observed and lauded when they favor us, it hasn’t effected any change in behaviour where it matters.

    This government is taking a pragmatic approach towards a long standing issue, raising the pressure on all fronts, via language, diplomacy, economic, financial and strategic military pressure. You negotiate for peace from a position of strength. Viewing any statement through a prism misses the forest for the trees.

  6. This article indirectly highlights how similar Modi and Rahul are in terms of indiscretion. Rahul shoots off about what the SC has supposedly said, and about how much money the BJP gave to some industrialist . And here we have unnecessary parading of our known nuclear strength by Modi. Both Modi and Rahul are carried away by the witticisms that they see in their talk and ability to use words cleverly . Both have very little capability to think through in depth about what they say.

  7. Mr Gupta doesn’t miss one chance to repeatedly demonstrate his ‘scholarly’ knowledge of Indian PMs, the Great Nehru downwards! But a regurgitation of that knowledge fails miserably to offer a cogent critic of Modi’s calling the Pak nuke bluff, albeit openly.

    What the scholarly Mr Gupta also misses abysmally is that Modi’s pronouncement may have had as much to do with China, as with Pak! For years meek and impotent Indian leadership had not only projected a softly, softly image for the Republic of India, but more unfortunately had created a self-defeating Gandhian aura for adversaries such as China: agar humein ek gaal par tamaacha maroge, toh hum doosra gaal aage karenge.

    Modi just sought to rectify this historical blunder. Even in elitist strategic doctrines it is well accepted that ‘perception’ is equally if not more effective as ‘action’ when it comes to deterrence. For one Mr Gupta, the world knows that Indian nuke fury could be real and truly devastating, unlike the stolen Pak tech. After all, the Nehrus and Gujrals did fail to get India a permanent seat at the UNSC inspite of their Anglo Urdu rendition of the soft Indian power!!

  8. ‘M’ stands for “maniac”. Please God, see to it that some people are not elected in these elections.

    As for Mr Modi, we haven’t read the most ominous message in Demonetization. By completely ignoring the fact that millions and millions of our daily wage workers depended on the daily cash payment they received in the evening, Mr Modi has demonstrated that the PHRASE *COLLATERAL DAMAGE” DOES NOT EXIST IN HIS DICTIONARY. Guys, do we realize the implication of this?!

  9. Someone needs to educate Modi (and all those who are positively impressed by his words) on what nuclear weapons really mean – a n-bomb is not just a “bigger” bomb – it comes with radiation hazard, and a simple calculation will show that nuking lahore will burn amritsar. Pak is too close to us to even imagine nuking it. Please guys, read up on nuclear explosion and watch movies on Hiroshima … then instead of being supportive or complasant on hearing Modi’s words, your blood will run cold!

  10. I don’t see any difference between the Modi and his political Mehabooba. Do these leaders care for people. Hundreds and millions are struggling to get two square meals a day. Whether Modi or his counterpart talking about its nuclear capacity, they don’t care for consequence of its use against each other for the sake political power. The so called leadrs will be safely kept inside safe bunkers, it is poor people would be first victim, then folks in Cities, all leaders would simply run away. With such weak opposition against why Modiji is making such irresponsible statements just for votes. Dr Kalam the missile man would be grieving in his grave. A good leader should act more and talk less

  11. There is nothing wrong in highlighting our strengths and that too when your neighbor keeps not just bragging about it but also threatening us. We are proud of our arsenal and the bold Prime Minister. Jai Hind.

  12. All these days our political leadership made Indian army, Navy and Airforce paralyse for their own selfish ends. Especially, all the non BJP governments had been soft to Pakistan fearing they lose Muslims’ votes in India. How unfortunate it is! When Modi warns Pakistan why you people cry that it is irresponsible? Why you people don’t write the articles about leaders who always lick the shoes for vote bank politics. Now, in India people are coming to know what we lost all these years because of vote bank politics and fake secularism. This is new India where now people don’t get influenced by the fake journalism. Stop being partial to anti Modi groups. At least once you taste the joy of honesty. Let’s make journalism an art of honesty but not a pond of lies.

  13. Sir,
    It’s all election rhetoric. Specially by Modi who always speaks election jargon and creates hysteria and surprisingly people savour it.
    People should question Modi why he wanted to use it for Abhinandan but not for Kulbhushan Jhadav who is still in Pak custody.
    Use it and release him if Modi really means it.
    All Modidrama, melodrama, rhetoric as usual.

  14. Everyone has its own style… Modi made it very clear to Pakistan that his talks and actions are not differ. If u use nuclear Pakistan will be history so stop hiding behind nuclear bombs.

  15. It is okay to brag about anything once in a while; it doesn’t mean that Modi will launch ; but then it seems that Modi has been the most capable PM India has ever had.
    So the writer of this article , or so it seems to me, loves to give sermons to this very capable PM , without understanding the fact that in order to rule with an iron hand , it becomes necessary , at times , to brag and bully. So that the common citizen lives in peace and prosperity.

    • To equate Mehbooba with Modi will not make sense. Are we to pay deep attention to what MOdi says or to what she says ? Modi must speak with a full realization of the dignity and responsibility of his position – something he frequently forgets. WE don’t have to count Mehbooba in this equation at all, after noting that she is a separatist sympathizer anyway.

  16. As a prime minister of India, Mr Modi should not have talked about Indian nuclear arsenal. To be fair, Mr Modi was explaining how India has crossed the threshold of nuclear blackmail by Pakistan. He should have stopped at that point.

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