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January 30, 2003
Defence Minister George Fernandes' recent warning that Pakistan would be wiped off the map if it dared launch a nuclear attack on India should not be seen as the rambling of a loose cannon in the government.
When he torpedoed Sino-Indian relations before India's 1998 nuclear tests by declaring that China was India's potential enemy number one, reports indicated Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had rebuked his defence minister for speaking out of turn.
This time, Fernandes' assertion to BBC Radio seems to be endorsed, if not choreographed, by the government.
The statement needs to be seen in the context of two recent events. Events which indicate India is carefully ratcheting up the pressure on Pakistan -- without depending on the US.
First, Fernandes' statement -- which incidentally puts India in the same league as the Pakistani 'madmen' who talk about nuclear strikes and counterstrikes with bravado -- comes soon after his return from Moscow. There, he finalised the long-term lease of two Tu-22M3 (Backfire-C) long-range strategic bombers and two Akula class nuclear submarines as part of the $3 billion Admiral Gorshkov deal. Delivery is expected by March.
'The acquisitions would complete India's cherished nuclear triad. It would also aggravate the existing imbalance in conventional forces and strategic weapons delivery systems in the region,' a Pakistan foreign office spokesman said.
In other words, Pakistan does not have similar capability.
Fired by its ambition to attain great power status, 'India has chosen the reckless path of militarization. It was amassing weapons and military hardware beyond its legitimate defence requirements to intimidate its neighbours. This is an amazing choice for a nation that preaches non-violence and boasts the largest population of poor in the world,' was the Pakistani official's sanctimonious conclusion.
In other words, Pakistan, if it had the means, would acquire similar, if not more powerful, weapons of war.
Fernandes also announced India has accepted Russia's proposal to hold a joint naval exercise in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea in the next three to four months.
The flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, missile cruiser Moskva, two destroyers from Russia's Pacific Fleet and a nuclear submarine from the North Sea Fleet will leave for a six month trip to the Indian Ocean next month, says Russia's Kommersant daily. They will be accompanied by landing crafts and support ships.
This is the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union that Russian warships will visit the Indian Ocean. India will be among the very few nations to hold naval exercises with both the US and Russia within a span of a few months.
The second incident is a small but significant clause in the Delhi Declaration signed during Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's visit to India, under which the two countries agreed to explore opportunities for cooperation in defence, including training and exchange of visits. The agreement will boost Indian armament exports to Iran.
Iranian Defence Minister Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani accompanied Khatami, indicating that most of this agreement was probably penned before the visit.
While the declaration clarified this cooperation was 'not directed against any third country,' the fact that Indian intelligence, security and military experts might soon train their counterparts in Iran will give sleepless nights to many in Islamabad. After all, Iran provided Pakistan bases for its aircraft during the 1965 and 1971 wars with India.
India, Iran and Russia were the main backers of the Northern Alliance when it fought the Pakistan-backed Taliban regime in Afghanistan. With members of the Northern Alliance now part of the Kabul government, all three nations are leveraging their positions there and calling in their debts.
Despite Washington's request -- at Islamabad's behest -- against it, India went ahead and opened consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad, kilometers from the border with Pakistan.
India is in the rather strange situation of simultaneously courting sworn enemies, the US and Iran. If it manages this well, and the reformists in Iran finally get their voice, New Delhi might eventually serve as a bridge between the 'Great Satan' and one of the three states forming US President George W Bush's 'axis of evil.'
Incidentally, Iran too plans to hold joint naval exercises with India in the Gulf soon. So the region is likely to be awash with warships, from Iran, Russia and India adding to US forces already in place for the attack on Iraq.
One of the Vajpayee government's primary stated foreign policy objectives when it took office was to try and remove the 'baggage' of Pakistan which accompanied all India's moves in international fora. No Western diplomat could think of India without automatically associating it with the dispute over Kashmir with Pakistan. And frankly, they still can't.
While Pakistan revels in such linkages, believing it internationalises the Kashmir issue, New Delhi was going out of its way to prove that its foreign policy did not revolve around Pakistan. Apart from trying to dispel concerns about India's nuclear tests, Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh's innumerable visits to Washington and other world capitals were aimed at debunking this automatic association. In fact, there is even talk that Fernandes' talk about China -- and not Pakistan -- being enemy number one, was part of this strategy.
9/11, and the attack on the Indian Parliament, changed all that. India's attempts to portray Pakistan as a terrorist State was politely ignored by the US, which preferred a strategic tie-up with both nations.
Initially upset with Washington's double standards, New Delhi finally seems to have accepted that American compulsions vis-ŕ-vis Pakistan are different from its own. So while keeping the pressure on Pakistan by refusing all overtures and requests for dialogue until cross border terrorism stops, New Delhi embarked on a search for other allies.
Simultaneously, it stepped up the psychological pressure on Pakistan. The first step was the dilution of the no first use of nuclear weapons policy, by asserting it could be revoked in case of a biological or chemical attack on Indian territory.
The impending American attack on Iraq gave India common cause with many nations opposed to any unilateral action. (Incidentally, the Pakistani position on Iraq is the same as India's: No unilateral strikes while at the same time urging Saddam Hussein to divulge and give up his weapons of mass destruction.)
Uncharitable reports say the recent expulsion of diplomats by both nations was an attempt -- by both nations -- to prevent their dispute from being relegated to the international backburner due to the war on Iraq.
Though no one can predict the fallout from the attack on Iraq, India's ability to rope in the Iranians and Russians, while stepping up its strategic engagement with the US, ensures it has a foothold in both camps.
While Pakistan sweats it out, knowing it is being slowly, but surely, encircled in the west (Iran and Afghanistan) and in the North (Russia) by nations that have growing strategic and military relations with New Delhi. And listens to George Fernandes' talk about a crushing second strike.