Bruce Anderson: Mutually assured destruction could stop this war starting

'India and Pakistan both possess nuclear weapons, and nuclear powers only fight cold wars, not real ones'
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The Independent Online

Wars often start when the contending parties underestimate one another's resolve. A further danger arises when the rivals have mobilised their forces to the extent that withdrawl becomes difficult; for either side to take the first step back risks giving the impression of a humiliating retreat.

Apropos of the Indo-Pakistan conflict, therefore, the precedents are discouraging. For the past three or four years, some senior Indian generals have insisted that Pakistani-backed provocations in Kashmir were becoming intolerable and that it was time to teach Islamabad a sharp lesson. They regularly used phrases such as "box on the ears" or "smack on the bottom". This is where the unwise underestimates arise, for it is exceedingly foolish to think in terms of inflicting corporal punishment upon a nuclear power capable of a capital response.

Pakistan could not afford to lose a conventional war against India; were it to do so, the country would disintegrate. Faced with that possibility, Pakistan's rulers would almost certainly launch a nuclear first strike. Nor is it likely that Pakistan's principal ally, China, would stand idly by. So the Indians have been in danger of underestimating their way to a hideous outcome.

In view of all this, it is hardly surprising that Tony Blair's thoughts should have wandered in the direction of the subcontinent. Nor was it unreasonable for him to be prepared to travel to the region and press the case for peace. If his visit could do any good, it would be a worthwhile exercise, and would justify his neglect of his domestic responsibilities. But that possibility is hard to assess.

Mr Blair certainly began badly, by announcing that he proposed to advise everyone to calm down. His remarks were instantly misunderstood, and anyone who has travelled in India will understand why. During the time of the Raj, there was said to be a gravestone with the inscription: "Here lies a man who tried to hurry the East". There should have been another one: "Here lies a man who tried to calm the East". At occasional exasperated moments, every visitor to India has marvelled at the way the locals can switch effortlessly from being supine to being over-excited.

That was the problem with Mr Blair's comments. Sophisticated Indians are aware of their reputation for excitability. At times – and especially with fellow countrymen – they will admit that the stereotype is justified. But they do not appreciate it when foreign politicians appear to agree.

That was not Mr Blair's intention. Far from making Peter Sellers-style digs at Indians' expense, he was merely advising restraint on the edge of the nuclear abyss. But – an easy mistake to make – he failed to allow for his hosts' excessive sensitivity. He forgot the Raj.

Most of the British have long since made a complete psychological break from the days when we ruled India; it is unlikely that Mr Blair has ever given any thought to the Indian Empire. In that respect, he differs from almost every educated Indian. Throughout such Indians' dealing with Britons, the Raj is always in the background and often in the foreground.

This is inevitable. British rule in India not only created much of the administrative and physical infrastructure on which Indians still depend. It invented India, welding together regions which formerly had little in common. So it is hard for even the most nationalistic of Indians to escape from the shadow of the British, without repudiating large areas of their own history.

This arouses complex responses. At a dinner party, Indians will start off by blaming us for agreeing to partition and the creation of Pakistan. They might be persuaded later to concede that partition was the least bad of the available outcomes and that if the subcontinent had remained united, the subsequent religious disputes would have been unmanageable. At that same dinner party, infuriated by the memory of some more than usually labyrinthine incompetence by the Delhi bureaucracy, they are capable of regretting that the British ever left – and later that evening, in another context, resenting the fact that we ever arrived.

All this makes for a complicated relationship, especially as only one side is aware of the difficulties. Few Indians realise that they give vastly greater thought to the British Indian past than the average Briton does, and when this is explained to them as an excuse for visiting politicians' clumsiness, they are not appeased. They in favour of imperial divorce, but not imperial oblivion.

Add a willingness to see slights or patronage where none was intended to the volatility of Indian domestic politics, plus the fact that a vital state election is always in the offing somewhere, and it is easy to understand why British political visitors would be well advised not to stray far beyond platitudes.

But there is nothing platitudinous about a nuclear exchange. So it is easy to understand Mr Blair's anxiety and his lack of concern for linguistic niceties. This still does not mean that he was right to go to India. In order to make that judgement, we would have to be in possession of the diplomatic traffic, and to know in detail the advice which Mr Blair will have received from our embassy in Delhi, from the Secret Service and from the Americans.

They may have been telling him that the matter was well in hand. After all, leading Indian politicians may appear excitable in public, but they are not stupid. They must understand the consequences of a nuclear exchange. Over the past few weeks, their friends in the West have been reinforcing this point. Now that India and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons, they must operate under the same restraints which Russia and the West displayed over several decades in central Europe. Nuclear powers may fight cold wars; they cannot risk hot wars. Welcome to the new grown up world of mutually assured destruction.

It may be that this message is getting across. Much of the military activity could be mere sabre rattling for domestic political consumption. But there are still hazards. When hundreds of thousands of troops are within shell range of one another, an accident can start an escalation, which could quickly lead to full scale war. Rattled sabres have been known to spring loose from their scabbards.

Equally, diplomats can do only so much. Sir Rob Young, our man in Delhi, is an immensely capable High Commissioner – but no envoy has unlimited access to the innermost circles of government. If Sir Rob judged that it was time to deploy Mr Blair's undoubted international prestige in order to reinforce the messages which Western diplomats had been impressing upon Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee over the past few weeks, Mr Blair was right to go. But if Mr Blair insisted that only he could bring the right touch to Western diplomacy at this critical moment, he was guilty of self-deception and of believing his own propaganda.

It may be some years before we know the truth. In the meantime, we can only hope that whatever contribution Mr Blair may have made, the peacemakers will be successful.