The paradox is that the more dangers are injected into an interaction and projected as such, the more stability there is in the system. Additional deterrence stability is sought through the working of uncertainty, that ‘anything can happen’, or as the Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling put it, in deterrence that ‘leaves something to chance’. In other words, a seemingly more unstable a relationship at a particular level, the less attractive is that level for a faceoff. This was the thesis of S. Paul Kapur in his book, Dangerous Deterrent, on nuclear weapons and conflict in South Asia.

Whether the danger of conflict is stabilizing or unwarrantedly risky is not at issue here, but can dangers serve some purpose, such as, in focusing minds on opportunities for solution?

Deployment of instability for deterrence is the art of brinkmanship, or ‘blinkmanship’. Is it being practiced by the two South Asian protagonists? The perception in India is that Pakistan, in not disavowing nuclear first use, has made the nuclear level unstable. This is to check India conventionally, so that it can then proceed with its sub-conventional proxy war with impunity.

India, wanting to break out of this strategic log jam, went in for a proactive conventional doctrine, predicated on Limited War thinking so as to keep below any nuclear thresholds Pakistan may have. The use of the term ‘large’ thrice over in the famous four thresholds alluded to by Khalid Kidwai to his Italian interlocutors in an interview, gave the impression that there existed a gap, not necessarily ‘large’, between the sub-conventional and nuclear planes. This explained the limited war doctrine countenancing proactive offensives, dubbed colloquially as ‘Cold Start’. Thus, India sought to introduce instability at the conventional level so as to help bring stability to the sub-conventional level.

Though lately India has very sensibly let out that this strategy option is not quite a doctrine, Pakistan in its military reaction has been known to have arrived at a counter in its series of well-advertised military exercises, Azm e Nau. To checkmate Indian offensives conventionally, it has reportedly created reserves at tactical and operational levels. This makes eminent sense. However, two other moves are apparently less so.

It is also reportedly set on an early offensive, implying that it could attempt pre-empt Indian proactive offensives. Its lack of strategic depth, the military propensity for the offensive and a strategic culture informed by its status as the weak power in the dyad makes this plausible. The problem is that in expecting India to be quick off the blocks despite India distancing itself from the intent lately, Pakistan may be quicker off the blocks. In short, Pakistan being quicker on the draw may lead both states into an inadvertent war.

India, in its perception at the cusp of great power and a military considerably put out by Pakistani pin pricks over the last two decades, can be expected to vigorously try and recoup losses to such an offensive. It would therefore work harder and rely on its strike forces more liberally than it otherwise might reckon in light of the logic of limitation to war in a nuclear backdrop.

Here, Pakistan’s demonstration of intent in its recent test of the tactical nuclear weapons system, Nasr, comes in. The projection is once again of instability at the nuclear level to restrain India at the conventional level. India, for its part, has come up with a tit for tat answer, Prahaar. Along with it is a bright idea of a ‘tit for tat’ answer to Pakistani nuclear first use. The idea is to build in stability at the nuclear level, so as to be able to punish Pakistan’s Army, seen as distinct from Pakistan and its people, conventionally.

It appears that India wishes for stability at the nuclear level so as to use the conventional level for its purposes. Pakistan is in favor of the converse, so that it can use the sub-conventional level for its purposes. Is there a way out?

It would appear that if both were to step back from proactive stances at respective levels of preference, then the dangers would stand defused. India insists that proxy war is at root. Pakistan’s Army may believe that the power ratio in India’s favor needs to be offset, and therefore it attempts to tie India down in Kashmir in a case of acquiring ‘strategic depth’ forward of its territory.

What needs doing is for both to step back simultaneously. Incidentally, both have done so, but only half way. Pakistan has exercised some restraint in fuelling Kashmir, and India has denied any ownership of Cold Start. The two states have finished one round of dialogue and are set for the second. The situation is propitious.

The three interlocutors deputed by India to recommend a political solution to the internal dimension of the Kashmir issue have submitted their report. It has been kept confidential by the government pending their interaction with an all party committee of parliamentarians. Speculation has it that the report is less than ambitious, but nevertheless can serve as an opportunity. The two states can step back the full way. Military dangers can then have served a purpose.

Others sense a different kind of opportunity. To them, the combination of strained US-Pak ties and the recently forged India-Afghanistan strategic partnership mean that India can turn the pressure on Pakistan. Once cornered, its military could be forced to concede on Kashmir and on other scores. This power play is set to culminate by mid-decade when the US-NATO has played out its hand.

In other words, the juncture could yet prove another lost opportunity, but hopefully, for the two nuclear armed states, not the last one.