One of the most drummed up things in the national media about Pakistan is its nuclear arsenal. A state which by all accounts has failed to deliver even the basic necessities is being widely projected as one of the most important states by the right-wing intelligentsia. However it goes beyond this. The nuclear arsenal has become our sole "credible" claim to glory and consequently the justification for all the conspiracy theories according to which the entire world is wary of us.
This conspiracy theory culture which is outwardly looking, shifts the blame to foreign powers, who are allegedly jealous of Pakistan's nuclear might, and are always trying to purge the country of its "crowning" jewel. Several right wing TV anchors have constructed entire careers on perpetuating this culture of suspicion which is fueled by mythology built around glorification of Islamic fortress, Pakistan.
One of the biggest ironies of the nuclear arsenal, from what I keep hearing, is that it is protecting Pakistan from a US or Indian take over and yet the actual evidence suggests that we are protecting the arsenal. The fact that we have ended up protecting a device which was supposed to protect us is such an irony and yet completely incomprehensible to many Pakistanis who continue to gloat over it.
But why have we come to this stage? Why are we seeking a strange delusional solace in a device which is supposed to kill millions? Why is our entire intellectual thrust on perpetuating a strange culture of suspicion where every barbaric act, even if conducted and fully claimed, by our home grown Frankenstein monster, is construed to be planned by the foreign powers solely to take hold of nuclear arsenal.
The answer lies in the thoroughly bruised identity, particularly the way it has evolved after the debacle of East Pakistan in 1971 and defeat from India. East Pakistan debacle among many other things shattered the myth of superiority of Pakistani army's quality.
Before 1971, even within army circles, a martial race myth had gradually been constructed. According to this myth a Muslim soldier is far superior in quality due to extraordinary valor originating out of faith. The glorification of army was not merely restricted to army as a fighting unit but stretched to include the state of Pakistan as Ayub (Pakistan's first military ruler) era was a military rule. Military rule practically defined state. Ayub's ruke was a far cry from the earlier "chaos" and it also saw active nation building done and supervised by the military. While in power and at the helm of the affairs, the army's image also became the national image.
The debacle of East Pakistan shattered the army's repute as an invincible fighting force and had lasting impact on the collective psyche of Pakistani nation . West Pakistani populace, particularly the middle class felt humiliated and could not believe that their cherished army had been routed. It was a moment of national humiliation. Moreover since at that time no one came to "rescue" Pakistan, and India had actively collaborated with the Bengali nationalists, it gave rise to conspiracy mode of thinking. For majority of the middle class, it was not that East Pakistan has been given unfair treatment, but rather an Indian and global conspiracy to break up Pakistan. To this date, majority of Pakistanis see the problems of Pakistan particularly relating to security through this conspiracy paradigm.
Pakistan's first democratically elected Prime Minister, Zulifiqar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) after taking power immediately started taking steps to curtail army's political role. Among these steps was forcible removal of the existing army chief, promotion of apparently "weak' officers like general Zia and creation of Federal Security Force (FSF), which was a parallel security force.
However, the 1974 nuclear test by India once again reopened the wounds of the 1971 humiliation and warranted some kind of response to settle 'scores' with India. It was under these circumstances that ZAB decided to embark upon the nuclear program. Being extremely intelligent ZAB understood that renewed threat from India would once again restore the army's position and importance. Hence the best bet was to actually match India and become a nuclear power. In this way, the army in its conventional role would not be required to that extent and consequently in the long run its political power would diminish as well. Thus the reason for becoming the nuclear power was in some ways an extension of the desire to curtail army's political ambitions. Plus the nuclear arsenal would soothe the bruised identity.
However, the reality unfortunately has not conformed to the wishes of the initiator of the nuclear program. Although the nuclear arsenal has proven to be apparently successful in soothing the bruised identity of Pakistani middle class, but the cost has been tremendous.
Nuclear arsenal has successfully soothed the bruised identity as it has apparently "settled" scores with India and given some importance to Pakistan in the international arena which it desperately needed. With the passage of time, as the failed state label becomes more justified the nuclear arsenal keeps on getting elevated in terms of our "success". Unfortunately the more Pakistan lags behind in economic and social indicators, more obsessive we become about nuclear arsenal and try to seek compensatory comfort in it.
Whether we admit it or not, Pakistan ranks low in important social indicators pertaining to transparency, literacy, economy and healthcare even when compared to developing economies of similar characteristics. In Human Development Index, Pakistan stands at 146th and below even countries will lesser per capita income such as Bhutan, Nepal and Namibia . According to Gender Gap report, Pakistan ranks 141 out of 142 "beating" only Yemen. In Freedom of Press Index, Pakistan ranks 158 out of 180 , in Religious Restriction Index Pakistan is ranked as the worst and in Fragile State Index Pakistan ranks 13th in the category of "High Alert" countries which includes Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
Nuclear arsenal thus becomes the only "achievement" and therefore talked to death in our right wing circles. At times it becomes actually embarrassing that we are not able to provide basic things like education and electricity and yet assume ourselves to be the center of the world due to our nuclear status. Even when given the chance to have more aid and reduction of foreign debt in exchange for not conducting the tests in 1998, we unanimously opted for going nuclear. The irony was that within one month's time, we as a nation proved how hollow we were, when instead of showing mettle and inner strength to face sanctions, we were busy betting on the devaluation of rupee!
In addition this "achievement" has made us deeply paranoid about the rest of the world and with terrifying consequences. As Pakistan falls deeply into insecurity and terrorism, instead of correctly identifying the causes, the nuclear obsession leads us to believe that everything is a grand conspiracy to take hold of the nuclear arsenal.
Moreover, the nuclear status has not provided protection to Pakistan and rather it has exposed it to needless international scrutiny. Pakistan's security problems are no longer emanating from India but are rather homegrown and ironically are in some ways an outcome of the nuclear status itself. The nuclear status actually enabled the deep state to train militant elements without fearing a full scale war.
In addition, contrary to ZAB's original aim of weakening the army, the nuclear arsenal has actually strengthened it. Once army took over, the nuclear program actually became its shield to undertake covert activities in the neighboring countries. In fact, army and nuclear "image' have intertwined and army has successfully positioned itself as the guardian of the nuclear program.
Right now the ultranationalist section of the population has to redirect its concerns and energies to real issues rather than on this nuclear paranoia. Frankly the nuclear arsenal has proven to be one of our greatest drawbacks and has ended up creating more problems for us.