The successful test of Agni 5 marks the beginning of a new era in India’s strategic capability, but the media coverage need not have been so provocative, focusing on our new-found ability to “strike” or even priapically “penetrate” important Chinese cities. The point of having ballistic missiles is deterrence. That’s the ability to discourage other nations from striking at you, not to tom-tom your own strike capability.
The coverage was focused on what we can now do to China. Naturally, the Chinese have responded scathingly in their State media that India cannot hope to win an arms race, and that missiles in the air are irrelevant to dispute resolution on the ground. Indeed, all that a missile threat produces is a counter-threat. One recalls the plainspeak of Nikita Khrushchev, architect of the Cuban missile crisis, who had almost precipitated doomsday: “If you start throwing hedgehogs under me, I shall throw a couple of porcupines under you.”
Obsessed with China, maybe we’re missing the game-changing point — Agni 5’s radius includes Nato members like Turkey, nuclear hotspots like North Korea, the entire West Asia, and almost touches Japan, which is under the US nuclear umbrella. The deployment of Agni 5 in 2014 will project Indian strategic influence well beyond our region.
But we’re mad about China. Coincidentally, the very day Agni 5 took off, former Army chief JJ Singh, currently Governor of Arunachal Pradesh, suggested that India should loosen up in its dealings with China. Beijing and Delhi have stayed dug in on the border dialogue for decades and promise to hang on tooth and nail for another decade. That’s the earliest we can expect results, if any.
Again one recalls Khrushchev, who revelled in standoffs and crises: “Do you think when two representatives holding diametrically opposing views get together and shake hands, the contradictions between our systems will simply melt away? What kind of daydream is that?”
Khrushchev understood that only relaxation could end the missile crisis. He wrote to John F Kennedy, saying that the two of them were pulling on a rope which bore the “knot of war”. The harder they pulled, the tighter the knot would become until it could no longer be untied, only cut violently. He ended thus: “Then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot.”
Happily, we can see a relaxation in India-Pakistan relations, with Indian markets being opened up to Pakistani capital and Gen Ashfaq Kayani urging the demilitarisation of Siachen. Unravelling Aksai Chin and Arunachal will also need similar loosening up. Such things are achieved by dialogue to which nuclear capabilities can serve as a hazy backdrop, but nothing more.
Missiles are useful not for solving existing issues, but to prevent further issues from arising. When Baghdad was being bombed during the invasion of Iraq, I remember friends musing over the implications. One of them, a senior Indian diplomat, thought out loud: “Does this mean that tomorrow, there could be Apaches hovering over Rashtrapati Bhavan?” Reluctantly, we admitted that it was not impossible. But after Agni 5, it would be unthinkable. We may still lose at Chinese Checkers, but we’d pass the trial by fire.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine
The views expressed by the author are personal