India’s Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistan’s Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who gathered here with the leaders of the other five South Asian countries for a summit meeting in early January, sat opposite each other at the banquet table. For two hours, while Vajpayee stared impassively down at his plate, Musharraf looked up at the chandeliers and made light conversation with Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Khaleda Zia on his right. The leaders of the two nuclear powers of South Asia made no eye contact throughout. A thousand kilometers to the west, their armies were massing at the frontier.
The avuncular Vajpayee, of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), once penned poems in memory of the Hiroshima dead. But it was he who took the subcontinent nuclear by conducting tests in the Rajasthan desert in May 1998. This was an invitation for rival Pakistan–riven with internal angst based on an ideological reliance on Islam since its founding in 1947 and ruled by the military for long periods since–to join the nuclear fold, which it did with its own tests weeks later.
The Kargil miniwar of June 1999, which was the Pakistani military’s response to peace moves by the civilian leadership of the two countries, was the first-ever conflict between two nuclear powers. It proved that the nuclear deterrent would not necessarily keep South Asia from conventional war. Since then, the region has walked a tightrope; unforeseen events can rapidly escalate into full-blown conflict, and the bluster of both sides includes the threat of using nuclear weapons.
There is a failure of imagination to consider the impact of nuclear blasts on the densely populated Indo-Gangetic plains, or that missile flying time to targets is measured here in minutes. Such are the proximity of population centers and climate conditions that a nuclear attack on Pakistan could consume India as well, and vice versa.
Meanwhile, even rudimentary confidence-building and de-escalation devices are lacking between the two countries–one a brittle military state whose command and control structures could collapse at a critical moment and the other a democracy egged toward brinkmanship by the arrogance of size and reactionary politics.
The current deep chill has its origins in the belief that General Musharraf is considered the “architect” of the Kargil conflict; in addition, there is the flamboyant Musharraf’s upstaging of the aging Vajpayee at every public opportunity. But beyond the matter of personalities, New Delhi has legitimate grounds for anger, for Pakistan has been indulgent toward radical Islamic organizations with the avowed aim of conducting jihad to release Kashmir from India’s grasp. It has allowed these militant groups to organize, fundraise and run training camps within its territory. These Pakistan-based external elements gradually displaced the indigenous militants in Kashmir over the last half of the 1990s, and recently even Kashmiri civilians have been targeted by the infiltrators.