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.
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.)”
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.