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The perils of making nuclear deterrence your campaign rhetoric
In early 2002, when India ordered full military mobilisation as part of 'peration Parakram following the Jaish-e-Mohammed attack on Parliament, Pervez Musharraf's Pakistan responded with a mixture of fright and bravado.
On January 12, Musharraf made a conciliatory speech, 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 scaremongering, he would routinely launch one missile test after another. Each of these new missiles was named after some medieval Muslim invader of India. Ghori, Ghazni, Abdali, Babur and you can Google if there were more.
Nirupama Rao, later India's ambassador to Beijing, Washington and foreign secretary, was at the time the spokesperson of 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 Indian and global media 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. At one of his media interactions just after, still seething at the insult, I'd presume, particularly by a woman, he said, "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 Pokharan-1 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 term was consumed in internal strife, especially in Assam and Punjab. Rajiv Gandhi woke up to the threat and asymmetry during Exercise 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. It is a well-documented story.
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