The gruesome death of 18 jawans in Uri is, arguably, a defining moment for PM Modi’s foreign policy. But India’s larger enduring strategic conundrum remains the same. How do you deal with a nuclear state that uses terror as an instrument and which is still bankrolled by major powers? How do you deal with a state where the army has incentives to maintain its centrality, whose identity is marked by resentment? There are no easy or comforting answers. India is well within its rights to take any action that it thinks appropriate. But this will be a game of many moves. There are not too many new ideas on the table. It bears repeating that whatever one may think of strategic restraint, it was not a doctrine of defeatism. It makes realistic assumptions about the nature of the Pakistani state. Remember, this is a state where defeat led to even more militarisation and radicalisation; this is a state that is willing to bear the cost of great internal violence, so a little more experience of internal violence will hardly dent it. It makes reasonable assumptions about the risks of escalation.
The stakes are too high to ignore this risk. It makes reasonable assumptions about the Indian state’s capabilities. It also draws on recent historical experience: Societies are not weakened just by terrorism as much as they are by overreactions. Under some circumstances, restraint can be a form of deterrence, since the other side does not get the political leverage it hoped for. It was also based on the recognition that the India-Pakistan dispute is not a conventional problem; it is a long psychological and historical process. Restraint also plays to India’s advantage; India’s strength and standing have increased immeasurably during the last decade or so.
We should have expected an escalation of violence from Pakistan. Defeat and the threat of secession, in the short run, radicalises Pakistan. After 1971, instead of crafting a new, perhaps more liberal political identity, it used violence and Islam more as a plank of statecraft. This is not a question of blame. But it is elementary political logic that as you raise the ante, with another symbolically existential threat in Balochistan, there will be blowback from a state that has no compunctions of any kind. Second, the military-civilian tussle is still a live issue in Pakistan and keeping the India pot boiling has always been a central element to it. Third, Pakistan’s strategy of “internationalisation” has always rested on creating a sense of apocalyptic violence in South Asia. It operates on the assumption that bad behaviour that can be shown to destabilise the region will get the world’s attention. Therefore, India’s restrained response actually has it chafing. Fourth, arguably, uncertainty in the US is tempting many powers to be adventurous. Finally, there is the immediate context of Kashmir.
Logistically our forces are preoccupied with internal order; politically Pakistan will want to intensify the cycle of violence and repression in Kashmir. India’s strongest cards are still diplomatic. Pakistan may have overplayed its hand. International patience with Pakistan is running thin. Contrary to popular conception, Modi will be on stronger ground on a diplomatic than on a military front, where he will be hemmed in by brute capability constraints. His diplomatic style has candour and assertiveness. Now is the time to use it, and put your friends to the test. Politically speaking, India’s credibility had taken a beating with its handling of Kashmir. Its standing as a rights-based democracy was coming under stress. Pakistan’s military, in one stroke, as it has often done in the past, delegitimised the Kashmir movement in trying to force a violent military response from India. Pakistan’s direct engagement is a bit of a diplomatic own-goal.
There has been no dearth of proposed “solutions”, from using Indus waters to economic sanctions, from covert operations to open war. But it is difficult to consider them in the abstract. On the military and covert ops side, a lot depends upon the quality of your actionable intelligence. But there is good reason to be suspicious of overzealous claims in this respect. If you use the Indus as a bargaining chip, what is the likely blowback? Will there be more radicalisation inside Pakistan? Or giving China the precedent of the power an upper riparian state can exercise? These are judgement calls that will have to arise from engagement, not based on complacent certainties thrown around. The lever most likely to work on Pakistan will require the cooperation of China and the United States. Economic sanctions will have to hurt the decision-making elites for them to be meaningful. Sanctions that hurt populations and not elites are probably counterproductive. The US has not shown any appetite for those kinds of sanctions. China will not abandon its ally. But can it be persuaded to draw a line if the risks of conflict escalate? But ultimately the question arises: To what norm do we want to hold Pakistan? India’s claim to holding it to a human rights norm would be strengthened if our record in Kashmir was more exemplary. The other norm would be not using violence, direct or through proxies, on others’ territory. This is, in principle, a norm China could commit to; it has used the same argument and is terrified of “outside” support for secessionist movements. But here the premature Balochistan gambit will complicate life. You can either try and get the international community to condemn cross-border adventurism or can be seen to be supporting it yourself. You cannot do both. In our diplomatic offensive, we have to be clear what norm we want to hold Pakistan to: The human rights standard and the “pacify sources of cross-border violence” standard work at cross purposes in the short run.
The Indian government’s failing is not inconsistency. Dealing with an obdurate adversary will require changes of vision. Our failing is a domestic discourse that gives our successes less credit. We have navigated a dangerous strategic conundrum by inflicting less damage on ourselves than many powers would have under similar circumstances. But our recently escalated rhetoric may also now be trapping us. Our state systems have let our jawans down — exposing them in shocking ways. Repairing our structures so that they make us less vulnerable, and in that sense provide deterrence, is probably a better tribute to the jawans who laid down their lives, than reckless adventurism that might satiate political egos, but does little to solve the problem. Our army has acted with maturity; Pakistan is hoping our politicians won’t.