MUCH WATER HAS flowed between the historic Monday on the 5th of this month when the Home Minister rose in the Rajya Sabha to start the process of abrogating Article 370 of the Constitution and the defeat of a China-backed effort to ‘discuss’ Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) at the UN Security Council last week. In this period, India has received ample and unalloyed support from the major pillars of the international community, including its vital partners in South Asia, a region that is often mischievously described by Pakistan and its backers as ‘volatile’ due to India.
First off the mark in supporting India was Sri Lanka, whose Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe tweeted on August 6th: ‘I understand that Ladakh will finally become a Union Territory. With over 70% Buddhist it will be the first Indian state with a Buddhist majority. The creation of Ladakh and the consequential restructuring are India’s internal matters.
I have visited Ladakh and it is worth a visit.’ All this was capped by a statement from Bangladesh on August 21st: ‘Bangladesh maintains that the abrogation of Article 370 by the Indian government is an internal issue of India. Bangladesh has always advocated, as a matter of principle, that maintaining regional peace and stability, as well as development should be a priority for all countries.’ Between those two dates came statements affirming support for the Indian position from a number of other countries including, significantly, Bhutan and the Maldives.
Pakistan’s attempt to ‘internationalise’ India’s constitutional action was its default strategy. Unlike the period from the 1950s until the 1990s, when such actions were a cause for concern in India, this time New Delhi and its confident leaders and diplomats handled the situation with aplomb. At the UN Security Council last week, Pakistan presented a forlorn picture. The issue was discussed, perhaps for the first time since 1965. Behind closed doors where India was not allowed in the deliberations, Pakistan’s chief patron, China, sought to take the matter for an open discussion at the forum. In the event, the US and France ensured that would not happen. Russia, which backed India’s position on J&K, gave India a tense moment—but just a moment—and it came out in favour of its old ally. Only Britain—once India’s colonial overlord—continued with its double-dealing behaviour: it first backed the Chinese move and later denied that it went against India, in suitably ambiguous language. That just left China, a hostile neighbour, to flog a dead horse.
In much of this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi played his cards deftly. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the Arab world. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was one of the earliest countries to back the Indian position. In the UAE and many other parts of the Arab world, Modi has invested much political capital to build bridges that were once thought impossible to construct. That these efforts were fruitful was evident beyond any doubt last week.
India’s aggressive diplomacy in handling J&K as its internal matter acquired a much harder edge even before the results of the deliberations at the Security Council were known. On the afternoon of August 16th, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted: ‘Pokhran is the area which witnessed Atal Ji’s firm resolve to make India a nuclear power and yet remained firmly committed to the doctrine of ‘No First Use.’ India has strictly adhered to this doctrine. What happens in future depends on the circumstances.’
The last line of the tweet set the cat among the pigeons. At one level, it was indicative of India’s resolve to tackle the menace of threats to tear J&K away from it by military means; on another plane, it indicated the greatly weakened potency of the nuclear threat from Pakistan on Kashmir and terrorism.
In the days since the tweet, this has added to a controversy that has been brewing since the last couple of years on India’s changed nuclear stance over the use of nuclear weapons.
Scholars and observers are ranged across a divide on the subject. On one side are those who say that statements like the one by Rajnath Singh send a signal to India’s rivals in South Asia that its commitment to a No First Use (NFU) has weakened to the point of being meaningless. This line of reasoning believes that India’s current nuclear posture of ‘massive retaliation’ in case of a nuclear attack has something of an ‘unbelievable’ quality around it. It is unlikely that an Indian statesman will order a nuclear attack that will lead to the death of millions of Pakistanis. Another reason that is often cited is India’s rapid advances in missile and other technologies that allow it to strike at Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and assets in a disarming first strike, a strategic option known as ‘counterforce strategy’.
On the other side are those who say this is stretching the point too far and what Singh, and others before him, said was a signalling device for countries like Pakistan.
Both sides have merit in their arguments.
Consider the claim that India abandoning an NFU policy would have a ‘destabilising’ impact in South Asia. The foremost proponent of this idea is Vipin Narang, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In a recent paper in the journal International Security, he, along with analyst Christopher Clary, argues: ‘One problem with a counterforce option, however, is that, seized with the fear of a disarming strike, Pakistan would have an incentive to unleash its entire arsenal first before losing it, which in turn would encourage India to attempt a counterforce strike pre-emptively—a problem given India’s NFU commitment, which most commentators have assumed would oblige India or its forces to suffer a nuclear detonation before retaliation.’
These scholars argue this dynamic is the reason behind India’s attempts to free itself from the shackles of an NFU policy. Singh’s statement has been interpreted along these lines as have prior statements by politicians, diplomats and generals as diverse as the late Manohar Parrikar who, as Defence Minister, made a similar claim but later retracted it as his “personal opinion”. Former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, in an interview in 2017, said: “India’s nuclear doctrine has far greater flexibility than it gets credit for.” India’s first strategic forces commander, Lieutenant General (Retd) BS Nagal, has openly called for the revocation of the NFU option.
All this, however, leaves open the question whether Rajnath Singh has taken India one step closer to the de facto revocation of NFU policy. “Rajnath Singh’s statement was very different from that of Manohar Parrikar. This was a carefully thought out statement. It was also tweeted. But I would think this is more about signalling to Pakistan about limits to India’s restraint than about erosion of the NFU policy,” Rajesh Rajagopalan, professor of international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University, tells Open on the import of the Defence Minister’s statement.
Rajagopalan says that use of nuclear weapons is a last-resort option when a country’s national survival is at stake and it is very hard to believe they will be used as a first option. “The effect will largely be on the public relations department. Pakistan’s concern is about deterring conventional options unleashed by India and not the nuclear one,” he adds.
Until very recently, it was standard fare for Pakistan to lower the nuclear threshold to the point that it made routine threats about ‘nuclear escalation’ at the slightest skirmish on the Line of Control. After the Uri (2016) and Balakot (2019) military encounters, that bluff has been called by India.
The net result is that Islamabad finds itself between a rock and a hard place. Diplomatically, it has received a rebuff at the UN. Militarily, it has few, if any, viable options at the moment. But most importantly, its economic condition is parlous. Pakistan was forced to reach out to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for help. In July, the IMF agreed to a ‘bailout’ package of $6 billion over 39 months, the country’s 13th such programme since 1988.
This economic weakness, coupled with some maladroit diplomatic moves, has left Pakistan with virtually no options on J&K. Its strategy, almost from 1947, was to ‘internationalise’ the issue in the hope this would secure third-party intervention against India. That strategy now lies in tatters
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There are a number of other measures by which Pakistan’s economy is in trouble. Its import cover—foreign exchange reserves in terms of months of imports—routinely dips below four months. The drubbing received by its currency since the Imran Khan government was formed is largely driven by its balance of payments problems and lack of investor confidence in the state of its economy. On top of all this, basic economic reforms, such as increasing its taxpayer base and ensuring that people from whom taxes are due actually pay them, routinely ensure that IMF prescriptions are either violated or are carried out in a half-baked manner. The result is an economy that has sustained itself from geopolitical rents—advantages that accrue from its location on the map—and not economic competitiveness or attractiveness as an investment destination. Until recently, it was considered to be a part of the group of ‘Next 13’ nations, countries that would give a fillip to the global economy after the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries experienced economic saturation. That proposition is doubtful now.
This economic weakness, coupled with some maladroit diplomatic moves, has left Pakistan with virtually no options on J&K. Its strategy, almost from 1947, was to ‘internationalise’ the issue in the hope this would secure third-party intervention against India. That strategy now lies in tatters, comprehensively. This is now quite obvious from the kind of options being explored. On August 21st, Shireen Mazari, the country’s minister for human rights, dispatched a letter to the executive director of UNICEF asking that Priyanka Chopra, the Indian actor, be removed as a UN Goodwill Ambassador for Peace as ‘her jingoism and support for violations by the Modi government of international conventions and UNSC resolutions on Kashmir, as well as support for war, including a nuclear war, undermines the credibility of the UN position to which she has been elevated.’ It is another matter Chopra never made the assertions attributed to her.
Another example is the plan to take India to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ‘on Kashmir’. Once again, this is like throwing darts en masse in the hope that some will hit the board. India has accepted the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ but with multiple exceptions. On September 15th, 1974, India’s Minister of External Affairs Swaran Singh signed the document accepting the compulsory jurisdiction of the court with 11 exceptions, including one that states, ‘disputes with India concerning or relating to: the status of its territory or the modification or delimitation of its frontiers or any other matter concerning boundaries….’ This is a provision that clearly rules out changes in J&K after the abrogation of Article 370. A basic search among UN documents—of which every diplomatic establishment is aware—would have made this clear. Pakistan clearly did not even undertake this preliminary review of facts. There is little doubt that it will go to the ICJ and equally little doubt that its case will be rejected there.
All this should not inject complacency in the Indian establishment. A lot will depend on how India handles the situation in J&K. Any volatility there beyond the current norm—given that it is an area wracked by insurgency—will be exploited by Pakistan and its supporters. Then there is the additional danger that in its desperation Pakistan will inject more terrorists across the Line of Control. The next few months—until winter sets in, in J&K, and the next summer, the season when things heat up in the Valley—are sensitive periods. This is a time when India needs to display tact and resolve in equal measure.