Well, that was quick. Less than 48 hours after the Bharatiya Janata Party received its mandate to form the next national government, a senior party leader and a Pakistani analyst were exchanging threats of nuclear war.
Nitin Gadkari, a former party president, who is likely to become a minister in the new cabinet, had been invited onto Headlines Today for a round of oral combat with the Pakistani strategic affairs expert Tariq Pirzada. Like a new neighbour who comes upstairs with a cricket bat to say hello and explain his claim on your parking space, Gadkari was keen to explain how the new government in Delhi would be changing the terms of cross-border engagement.
“I want to ask my Pakistani friend, does beheading our four soldiers and taking their heads away look good on part of the Pakistani military?” Gadkari said. And: “We have zero tolerance of terrorist organisations. Pakistan agar yeh bandh nahi kiya toh Pakistan ko iski keemat chukane padegi—” (If Pakistan doesn’t stop this, then Pakistan will have to pay the price for it).
The loud incoming whine was not the first missile, but an interjection by the anchor, Rahul Kanwal: “That’s a very interesting response from the former BJP president! You can’t behead our soldiers and expect us to sit back!”
But neither had factored in the Pakistanis’ policy of mutually assured dhamki, which Pirzada quickly laid out. “If Mr Modi, or the BJP, come up with a strategy of launching a strike into Pakistan under a false pretense,” he shot back, “I can tell you one thing: Pakistan is a nuclear state …”
Gadkari burst in: “Agar unke paas nuclear weapons hai, toh hamare paas nahin hain?” (If they have nuclear weapons, don’t we also have?)
Pirzada: “… Our nuclear strength is absolutely equal …”
Gadkari: “Aap yeh dhamki Manmohan Singh ko dijiye, humko math dijiye…” (Give this threat to Manmohan Singh, not to us.)
Pirzada: “Nahin, nahin, yeh dhamki nahin hai! Yeh… ” (No, no, this is not a threat. This …)
For a while their raised voices clashed incoherently, until Pirzada’s sentence broke clear: “… Pakistan itna powerful hai ki they’ll be able to wipe out New Delhi anytime if threatened!”
For a moment—a short one, but rare nonetheless on news television—there was a thoughtful silence. It’s been a while since Delhi has had to contemplate vanishing “anytime” beneath a mushroom cloud. In 1998, the previous NDA regime conducted nuclear bomb tests, provoking Pakistan to do the same, and then, at the end of 2001, it drew the two countries close to a nuclear stand-off. All the grand debates, strategic and philosophical—“Man’s challenge to God”, Arundhati Roy called it—were ventilated in the Vajpayee years.
Through the following decade, the UPA continued to calibrate our operational doctrine—a more secretive and less spectacular business—while narrowing the public conversation on atomic power to the question of whether civilian reactors might drive India’s future. Now the BJP returns to power, carrying an election manifesto that insisted that “strategic gains acquired during the Vajpayee regime … have been frittered away by the Congress,” and hinted at a plan to revise our deterrence upwards. Once again we’re reminded—for better or worse—of the twin arsenals cantilevered against each other, awaiting an order to make Bangladesh the most populous country in South Asia.
Even without taking Pirzada’s word for it, New Delhi is likely to be the bullseye of any hostile state’s nuclear strike at India. This has less to do with the prestige of turning a verdant national capital into a big, white-hot sigri, and more to do with the enemy’s necessary gamble at exterminating the country’s chain-of-command. India’s “No First Use” policy means that in the event we come under nuclear attack, any massive “Second Strike” retaliation will require due political authorisation. Vapourising the prime minister and cabinet could seriously delay this authorisation.
As prime minister, Vajpayee had constituted a Nuclear Command Authority, whose members’ lives would be high priority in the event of a nuclear attack. In 2003, the Hindustan Times reported plans to build at least two nuclear blast-proof bunkers for their protection: one underneath South Block, and a second at an undisclosed location beyond the National Capital Region and the likely radius of contamination, to which the cabinet could be evacuated.
What about the rest of us?
The hard protocols for anti-nuclear civil defence are all classified. The National Disaster Management Agency’s 170-page public guideline document for nuclear and radiological emergencies really only deals with “emergencies of lower magnitude,” like reactor meltdowns, radiological dispersal device (RDD) “dirty bombs,” or the incident in 2010 when pencils of radioactive cobalt-60 were circulated in Mayapuri in West Delhi. About nuclear attacks, the document says, “There should be a plan in place to handle such an event, as it would have devastating consequences.” It continues: “The Standard Operating Procedures for responding to such a scenario are addressed separately, in a classified document.” Oh.
We may then have to turn to the offices of the J&K Police Civil Defence and State Disaster Response. In 2013, during border-hostilities that led to the decapitation of an Indian jawan (the violation raised by Gadkari on Saturday), the agency placed an ad in the daily Greater Kashmir, advising residents to prepare for a possible nuclear blast. (Odd, since both countries claim Kashmir intact.)
“People should construct basements where the whole family can stay for a fortnight,” read the advisory, which might have been composed by an officer on secondment from the tourism department. It further suggested keeping stores of canned food and bottled water, to help radiation-refugees stay below ground as long as possible. Last, it warned them to expect, after the blast, “some initial disorientation, as the blast wave may blow down and carry away many prominent and familiar features.”
Before anyone rushes to the nearest pedestrian subway to stock it with Aquafina and Wai Wai, let’s note that this advice is bad. To begin with, nothing that can be dug without the help of E Sreedharan is likely to be deep enough. Brigadier Anil Chauhan, in his 2010 book Aftermath of a Nuclear Attack: A Case Study on Post-strike Operations says, “The only structure in Delhi that may afford some protection from a nuclear strike is the underground section of the Delhi Metro, whose … stations have been considered by the Delhi government to serve as nuclear shelters.” (Pro-tip, at 30 metres below the ground, the Chawri Bazar station is the best bet. But even if you do scurry down the rails into the darkness, the electro-magnetic pulse from the explosion could black out your phone, and then you will die of boredom.)
If you prefer running to hiding, there is some information available about the locations where a mushroom cloud might form over Delhi. Brigadier Chauhan’s analysis weighed the advantages of nuking different neighbourhoods in the capital: Shahdara would offer a high population density; the ITO crossing has power-plants; Connaught Place and the Red Fort are targets of, respectively, commercial and symbolic value. Another concern might be to minimise damage to diplomatic properties in Chanakyapuri—in case the hostile agent is worried about its international popularity afterward.
For Chauhan, “the most possible scenario” is a blast at Vijay Chowk, the crossroads before Raisina Hill: specifically, a single, missile-delivered airburst above Vijay Chowk. Cutting through the arithmetic, with a warhead of one megaton, in this scenario, Chauhan estimated around 13 lakh Dilliwalas will die and 40 lakh be wounded, not counting those poisoned by radiation, the effect on future generations, et cetera.
Other casualty projections have differed: in 2002, the Natural Resources Defence Council examined a scenario in which ten warheads exploded over five Indian and five Pakistani cities, and computed that New Delhi would suffer about 176,000 deaths out of a grand regional total of just below three million. But that calculation was made after the scare of 2001–2002, when the city’s population density was lower.
In Delhi, as elsewhere in the world, our sardonic confidence relies on our and our neighbour’s appreciation of the mutually assured destruction guaranteed by a nuclear exchange. For ten years we have evaded the thought, once expressed by Brajesh Mishra, the National Security Advisor to Vajpayee, that, “given the irrationality of the leaders of Pakistan, one cannot rule out 100 per cent a nuclear misadventure by Pakistan.” If, however, Mr Gadkari persists in prodding the Pakistanis to further threats, then look fondly on your city. Delhi’s air pollution, the worst in the world, is not fallout, and even peak summer beats nuclear winter. The day has not yet come when moving to Gurgaon is really, inarguably, a good decision, and you only have eight minutes to get there.