India, Pakistan and the Bomb: Debating Nuclear Stability in South Asia
Yogesh Joshi ·       

In the last couple of decades, nuclear dogfights have become a common feature of the India-Pakistan relationship. The influence of nuclear weapons on crisis behaviour in the region is not restricted to the period post the overt weaponization of the subcontinent; it is equally conspicuous in the decade preceding the 1998 weapons tests. Whereas Brasstacks and the crisis of 1991-92 were also driven by the nuclear logic of India and Pakistan’s covert nuclear assets; Kargil, Operation Parakram and the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks saw nuclear weapons influencing strategic decision making after India and Pakistan openly declared their weapon capabilities. The seriousness of the issue and the consequences of a stable or an unstable nuclear equation between India and Pakistan render any discussion on the issue extremely pertinent. Sumit Ganguly and Paul Kapur have done an excellent job summarizing this complicated issue in a few words and with maximum clarity. Whereas Ganguly attempts to defend the optimist position - conflicts are made less probable by nuclear weapons; Kapur sides with the pessimists - nuclear weapons, far from being harbingers of peace, may actually lead to an increase in risk-taking behaviour on the part of belligerents.
However, justice would be denied if this book is simply called a summary of the nuclear stability debate in the region. In this respect, the argumentative and methodological novelty of the book stands out. For instance, Kapur has introduced a new concept of ‘strategic pessimism’ in the book. Strategic pessimism underlines the fact that decision-makers may deliberately choose to destabilize nuclear strategies, which may appear perfectly rational to them, in order to achieve their intended goals. This is most pertinent in the case of revisionist states which are not satisfied by the present distribution of power and seek to challenge the status quo. For Kapur, “nuclear weapons can create strong incentives for rationale states to adopt aggressive, extremely risky strategies.” (Page 29) Further complications arise when dissonance with power distributions are intertwined with conflict-prone national identities. In the subcontinent’s nuclear equation, Pakistan definitely fits in this criterion. Unlike the nuclear pessimist literature of yesteryears, this argument qualifies the traditional pessimist argument which relies mostly on informational and organizational dysfunction, and irrational decision making. Methodwise, the book follows the dialogical tradition. Both the authors appear to be in constant conversation on specific aspects of the stability debate rendering the book a life of its own. This allows the reader to weigh the individual arguments simultaneously and hence, be more attentive.

Interestingly, while both authors look at the same evidence, the conclusions they draw are polar opposites. Four case studies - the Brasstacks crisis, the 1991-92 crises in Kashmir, the Kargil war and Operation Parakram - provide the historical context within which the optimist-pessimist claims are judged. Why do they then arrive at different results? There are two potential answers to this. First, whereas the optimists try to find evidence in support of their arguments in the end-results of a crisis, the pessimists look for the veracity of their arguments in the very process in which the conflict emerges and is negotiated. So for Ganguly, the India-Pakistan face off in Kargil did not expand beyond the infiltrated region because India was wary of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence. On the other hand, Kapur, by dissecting the way in which the Kargil war proceeded, makes explicit the prominent role of ‘tactical and diplomatic calculations’ rather than Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in limiting India’s decision  to expand the war along the rest of the international border. Second, marshalling evidence in support of a particular proposition is highly influenced by theoretical logic. As Waltz would like to put it, “facts are often theory-driven even if not theory-determined.” All Social Science knowledge and testing of various propositions must acknowledge this limit of social investigation. Both optimist and pessimists are selective in their search for facts and choose those which suit their theoretical narrative.

It is intriguing that both author’s attempt to provide a peek into the future of Indo-Pak nuclear engagement. Ganguly is forthcoming in his assessment: Nuclear weapons will help in maintaining peace in the region and “just as nuclear weapons capped the escalatory process in all the crises (before), they are likely to do so in the future”. (67) The Indian response to the Mumbai carnage is a case in point, and Ganguly is quick to use it as a further empirical validation of nuclear optimism. Ganguly also appears to be holding a view which locates the recent diplomatic engagement between the two South Asian rivals based on the fact that nuclear weapons have made force irrelevant in the region. This is obviously the peace dividend of nuclear weapons. 

Kapur disagrees. Why? First, for Kapur, the diplomatic reengagement is more a result of “shifting domestic priorities and non-nuclear calculations” rather than an effect of nuclear deterrence (73). Second, India is not going to accept an equal power relationship with Pakistan based on the latter’s nuclear weapons. It will attempt to emerge out of the strategic imbroglio which nuclearization of the subcontinent has created in the India-Pakistan dyad. This is conspicuous in India’s massive build-up of its conventional weaponry and its pursuance of military doctrines such as Cold Start. Both these factors are capable of galvanizing opinion towards a more nuclear trigger-happy military posture among Pakistani decision-makers. Increasing Pakistani nuclear arsenals seem to bear testimony to these predictions.

Ganguly and Kapur categorically oppose the development of Ballistic Missile Defence in the region. For them, BMD may not only induce temptations for nuclear first strike but also lead to an arms race in the region. India’s development of a BMD system will not only motivate Pakistan to increase its nuclear arsenals but also China.

This book can be easily recommended as referential text for students who are interested in the issue of nuclear stability in the Indian subcontinent. In addition to its many merits, it also sets an example for researchers who seek to combine theoretical insights with hard empirical evidence. The debate between nuclear pessimism and optimism, as the book makes amply evident, is far from being resolved and therefore provides a rich ground for future exploration.