Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech is likely to be remembered for its end-notes. The strategic portents of his comments on Pakistan are certain to be debated for days to come. Two elements are key: The deceptively toss-away reference to Balochistan, the first ever in an Indian Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech, and another to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Gilgit. Prime Minister Modi’s language may well portend a consequential new turn in his thinking, which has traversed the distance from hawkish polemic as he took office in 2014, to gestural flourish when he visited Lahore in December 2015.
Ever since the nuclear-weapons tests of 1998, India’s grand strategy has primarily sought regional stability. India avoided crossing the Line of Control during the Kargil war in 1999 to make just that point, and chose not to escalate hostilities beyond a point in 2001-2002 to avoid the risk of setting off events that could not be controlled. The same factors weighed on decision-makers in New Delhi after 26/11. India has avoided backing small wars and insurgencies in Pakistan for the same reason. The fact is, nuclear weapons are different from all other weapons because the costs they inflict are so high as to render traditional ideas of victory meaningless. Now, however, Prime Minister Modi seems like he might be willing to take his chances. He seems willing to give up a crucial part of the diplomatic room for manoeuvre that India’s Pakistan policy has sought to maintain and to protect so far — even in the worst of times. The idea that the vulnerabilities of Pakistan, or more specifically the ethnic-nationalist insurgency that has periodically flared in Balochistan, might be used in a tit-for-tat campaign against Pakistan’s proxy war in Kashmir has been around for a while. The PM’s remarks in his I-Day address may just have given it an official imprimatur. The consequences of the policy shift that this signals will unfold in days to come — the idea of a payback in Balochistan may not be quite as neat a deal as foreign policy hawks in India imagine.
There are, of course, other possibilities. The PM’s remarks might only be aimed at a domestic audience, meant to recapture voters disillusioned by the twists and turns in his Pakistan policy. Or, he may not yet have fully thought it through. If the latter is true, it may well make the fit with much of the rest of his I-Day speech. From the number of LED bulbs in use to the LPG connections distributed, the PM offered rich detail, but no framework of priorities. He spoke of “unity in diversity”, but gave no broad sense of the direction his government intended to take to address the ugly communal strains erupting across the country. He spoke of “social justice” but offered no glimpse into what the government means to do to punish perpetrators of the increasing violence against Dalits.