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Why one shouldn't trust Modi government's hard talk on Pakistan

Nuclear tests by the previous NDA government has forever limited India's geostrategic option in the region

Krishna Kant  |  Mumbai 

India, Pakistan

Delivering a lecture in Mumbai earlier this month, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval underlined the use of power. According to him India should stop punching “below its weight” and “punch proportionately” instead.

So what is India’s weight and what would a matching punch look like? Mr Doval left this to the imagination of the audience. He also failed to mention that a good punch requires free movement of hands and feet, besides an agile and flexible body regardless of the athlete’s weight.

India’s hands and feet are, however, tied behind its back, thanks to nuclear tests by the previous NDA government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The blasts burnished the macho image of the Bharatiya Janta Party but also allowed Pakistan to go nuclear, forever limiting India’s geostrategic options in the region.

In geostrategic terms, Indian bore all the financial and non-financial cost for becoming a declared nuclear power but it is Pakistan that is reaping all the rewards. Let me explain. First, let’s try and put some numbers to India’s relative weight in the region and globally.

According to International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook database, India was the word’s ninth largest economy at the end of 2014 with total Gross Domestic Product of $2.05 trillion at current rupee dollar exchange rate. India’s economy is now bigger than powers such as Russia and Canada but smaller than Italy, Brazil and France.

At current prices, Pakistan economy (~$265 billion) is one-eighth the size of India, or slightly larger than Maharashtra’s economy, India’s most industrialised state. The Chinese economy, though, is five times larger than ours, with a GDP of around $10 trillion.

How do we compare on the power index? India’s standing army is the third largest in the world after China and the United States, while our tank battalion is fourth largest. The Indian Air Force is the fourth largest with around 1000 combat jets – less than half that of China but twice that of Pakistan. Indian Navy is further behind at the seventh largest in terms of naval equipment; it is also half the size of China’s, but many times more than Pakistan.

According to various estimates, India is currently the world’s eighth largest defence spender behind countries Japan, Russia, France, but ahead of other regional powers such as Brazil, South Korea and Italy. In FY16, India is likely to spend around $40 billion on defence against China’s $131 billion and Pakistan’s $7.5 billion.

A combination of economic and military resources makes India a middling power in the ranks of European powers, but lacking in their technological prowess and colonial outposts that gives them power projection capabilities. But we remain ahead of Pakistan by a comfortable margin.

But does this gives us carte blanche against our western neighbour? Hardly, for nuclear weapons has more or less blunted India’s edge in conventional power over Pakistan.

History suggests that the threat of a nuclear attack is enough to deter powers from entering into a direct conflict with aggressors. This explains why United States is trying to contain North Korea rather than confront it for it cannot afford a nuclear missile attack on South Korea, Japan or worse on its own Western seaboard.

It’s the nuclear deterrent that has repeatedly stopped US from engaging Russia in direct armed conflict despite its overwhelming superiority in conventional weapons and economic clout. Closer home, it was the threat of a Iran going nuclear that forced Western powers to negotiate with Tehran and end its economic isolation in return for freeze on its nuclear programme.

We face a similar situation on our western borders. The threat of a nuclear attack has forced us to raise our tolerance level towards Pakistan military transgressions, both on the border and inside the country. Just count the number and severity of cross-border terrorist attack that India has suffered since the 1999 nuclear tests.

Worse, nuclear weapons has reduced Pakistan defence cost while we have been forced to spend tens of billions of dollars to acquire latest military hardware in a bid to retain the edge. Its shows in the defence budget of the two countries since 1999 nuclear blasts. All through 1980s and 90s, Pakistan was spending around a third of its government budget and 5-6% of its GDP on defence, or about twice the corresponding ratios for India.

After going nuclear, Pakistan’s defence spending decelerated and its share in GDP is expected to be decline to around 2.5% in the current fiscal year, slightly ahead of India’s 2%. This is releasing resources for Pakistan to invest in productive sectors such as infrastructure and social services, something they couldn’t do when they were competing with India to maintain parity in conventional weapons.

In this environment, a hard talk by Mr Doval followed by a high-decibel drama by the government on the National Security Advisor’s talk between the two countries seems nothing more than a show for the gallery. The audience may be applauding right now, but claps may turn to boos as the public realises the inconsistencies in the script and the pain it inflicts on the hero.

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First Published: Wed, September 02 2015. 09:21 IST
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