INDIA’S election continues to move apace — sadly, to the beat of war drums. In recent weeks, Prime Minister — or should it be ‘Chowkidar’ — Narendra Modi has transformed his campaign into an explicitly anti-Pakistan and implicitly anti-Muslim diatribe.
The speed with which Modi has gone from the economic promises of ‘acche din’ to the fear campaign of ‘qatal ki raat’ should disappoint Indians. But this shift must not be divorced from its political context. As I wrote recently, the fallback on national security by a Hindu nationalist leader should not be taken at face value. It is merely an attempt to distract from Modi’s poor economic governance and other broken promises from his last campaign.
One aspect of his aggressive rhetoric does, however, deserve attention: the nuclear threats. In several recent rallies, Modi has threatened to call Pakistan’s nuclear ‘bluff’ and indicated he would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons if provoked again — most notably in the Rajasthani town of Barmer, where he quipped the nuclear button was not reserved for use on Diwali.
These comments raise questions about whether India’s no-first-use policy may be shifting. They also suggest that India may feel more emboldened after the Pulwama strikes to respond aggressively to any future militant attacks that it perceives to have originated in Pakistan, complacent that Pakistan will not deploy its nuclear arsenal. The focus on countering Pakistan also raises broader questions about India’s security priorities, and casts doubt on its position that it can accept a status quo with Pakistan or that it is more concerned about Chinese threats.
When it comes to nuclear warfare, words matter.
Indian defence analysts are already discounting the statements as nothing more than campaign bluster, and do not believe a substantive security policy shift has occurred. But when it comes to nuclear warfare, words matter.
It is important for the tentative Pakistan-India equation that both countries can spin the same events in ways that make them seem like victories to a domestic audience, thereby saving face. So it is that the UN designation of Masood Azhar as a global terrorist is both a triumph for India — which has got what it has lobbied for after a decade-long effort — and for Pakistan, which has celebrated the fact that the proposal was moved by the US, UK and France (and not India), and does not mention ‘terrorism’ in Kashmir.
Similar doublespeak played out after Pulwama. Both sides sold wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s release as a diplomatic win. Imran Khan pitched it as a moment of statesmanship, restraint and graciousness. The BJP sold it as a sign of strength that Modi has managed to secure the pilot’s release.
But nuclear threats do not fit well with this carefully managed pattern of rhetorical dissonance. A threat must be matched by a threat. A threat must be backed by actual planning and resources to give it credibility.
The fact that threats of going to nuclear war are a potential vote winner in the world’s largest democracy is also extremely alarming. It is a reminder that nuclear policies lack transparency and are only discussed among elite circles that use euphemistic language about penetration, deterrence and escalation to talk about what would be horrifying, apocalyptic scenarios in which millions of people would be killed. That stark reality of nuclear warfare has been glossed over in both Pakistan and India (and arguably, globally) through the nationalist tenor of the debate on nukes and the chest thumping it entails. People march along when they hear the nuclear war drums, but they do not truly comprehend what they are advocating.
Modi’s nuclear threats are also being issued in a changing global political climate. Gone are Barack Obama’s optimistic visions of complete disarmament. Instead, all countries that possess nuclear weapons are in an arms race, vying for bigger, better, faster, more tactical, or more effective weapons. In this environment, it is unlikely that any international power would seek to clarify or constrain Modi’s aggression.
Within this broader context, Modi’s comments are desensitising the Indian public to the brutal reality and horrendous implications of a nuclear attack, no matter how targeted or tactical. And the run-up to this election, including the Pulwama aftermath, have shown how quickly and recklessly political parties will kowtow to appease domestic political constituencies for short-term gains at the ballot box. Political promises to a public primed for action make for a deadly cocktail.
Pakistan’s government and military have been right to forcefully criticise Modi’s comments and label them irresponsible. One hopes they exercise similar good judgement when it comes to planning our arsenal and appeasing our own increasingly right-wing, trigger-happy domestic constituencies.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
Published in Dawn, May 6th, 2019