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Itty Abraham

By Rajesh Rajagopalan
Penguin/Viking, New Delhi,, 2005, pp. 237, Rs. 395.00

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 12 December 2005

In The Last Jet-Engine Laugh, Ruchir Joshi’s edgy sci-fi novel set in Salt Lake in 2030, a BBC analyst commenting on the latest conflict between India and the “Pak-Saudi alliance” outlines the recent history of conflict in South Asia: “Kashmir, the Kargil mini-war in ’99, the 2007 attack by China and Pakistan that left parts of the Indian north-east under Chinese control and half of Kashmir and Punjab under Pakistani occupation … the terrorist loose-nuke that devastated south Bombay in ’12, the maverick return strike on Karachi by one Indian missile commander even though there was no direct proof of Pakistani involvement…” What is chilling is the casualness with which this statement is made—after plague, tsunami, and earthquakes, what’s a little nuclear devastation?—denoting the ease with which we can get used to what once was considered “thinking the unthinkable.”       Rajesh Rajagopalan’s book is written to dismiss the likelihood of this sci-fi scenario, proposing that South Asia is no more likely than anywhere else to erupt in nuclear war, and may even be much safer than the US-USSR nuclear standoff.  In clear, well-written prose accessible to non-experts, he lays out his case why he feels India and Pakistan are far less prone to succumb to the high-risk behaviour typical of the Cold War.  The principal difference, he avers, has to do with their nuclear doctrines.  Unlike the US and USSR, which adopted doctrines that gravitated over the course of four decades towards less stable and more risky positions, India and Pakistan appear to have decided that a doctrine of “existential deterrence” is sufficient to keep them secure from each other.  Existential deterrence just says that a nuclear attack will certainly be met with a nuclear response.  Deterrence by punishment says that an attack will be met with assured retaliation on a scale that will be so massive as to make any idea of victory impossible.  Deterrence by denial says that a nuclear attack will be met with a response that will both destroy and defeat the aggressor.  Each doctrine obviously has different implications for the structure and quantity of nuclear weapons a country needs in order to deter an enemy.  Existential deterrence requires only a reliable “second strike” capability, namely, the ability to respond with nuclear weapons after being attacked, while punishment and denial require qualitatively far more weapons, infrastructural capacity, resources, and, sheer will to destroy.  In short, it takes ...

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