Features | Politics | South Asia

Does India Want Stable Pakistan?

Indian policymakers are again discussing if a stable Pakistan is a good thing. Pakistan’s internal politics hold the key.

In the aftermath of yet another abortive attempt to reach a rapprochement with Pakistan this July, a time-honored debate has again been resurrected in New Delhi’s foreign and security policy circles.

The debate revolves around the question of whether or not it’s in India’s interests to have a stable, secure and prosperous Pakistan. Yet the question in its present form misses the point. The real issue isn’t whether or not such an outcome is desirable. Instead, the more pertinent issue for India’s policymakers is to establish how such a Pakistani state would behave toward India. Would it be a benign and fair-minded neighbor willing to cooperate on a host of outstanding differences? Or would it remain truculent as ever, determined to remain at odds with its neighbor?

Much depends on how things unfold on the domestic political scene. As long as the Pakistani state remains under the firm thumb of the military, even a civilian regime will maintain its implacable hostility toward India. Under those circumstances, it would be almost pointless to discuss whether or not a stable, secure and prosperous Pakistan would serve India’s national interests. After all, a state that enjoys prosperity and order, but refuses to countenance an end to terror against India—and one that continues to exploit India’s internal ethnic and religious fissures and nurtures an age-old claim on Kashmir—is obviously not in India’s interest.

Indeed, far from alleviating Indo-Pakistani tensions, such a stable but military-dominated state would be more prone to undertaking risky ventures against India, and would also likely be tempted to resort to asymmetric warfare, given India’s greater conventional military capabilities.

In effect then, such a stable, secure and prosperous state could turn out to be quite hubristic and could even conclude that it was in a position to unravel India’s troubled social fabric, to hobble its steady economic growth and to stultify its basic democratic ethos through small-scale but constant provocations. Such a state, far from being at peace with itself and its neighbors, could easily prove to be inimical to the prospects of regional and even global security.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

But would the opposite, as some of the more hawkish members of India’s strategic community are inclined to argue, be any better? For example, is an increasingly unstable, erratic, weak and insecure Pakistan really in India’s national interest?

Despite the seeming attraction of watching a long-standing and nettlesome adversary implode through its own choices, it’s almost certainly not in India’s self-interest to wish for, much less witness, such an outcome. Yet if Pakistan continues to spin into its present social, political and economic vortex, it’s a disquieting prospect India may have to face.

In fact, a Pakistani state on the verge of a breakdown might actually provide dramatically greater opportunities to a range of jihadi organizations to provoke and bleed India at will. Just as an anarchic Lebanon enabled Hezbollah to attack Israel with impunity, a severely frayed Pakistani state may well become a safe haven for similar terrorist organizations on a scale that India has yet to witness.  

Simultaneously, a severely weakened and increasingly desperate Pakistani state will be tempted to blame India for its growing crises of governability and order. Some of these worrying signs are already present in Pakistan, so one can only imagine how much worse it will be if the state continues to shrink, while growing violence and lawlessness stalks the land. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way. If through an extremely felicitous set of domestic circumstances—or through considerable external assistance—a legitimately elected regime actually succeeds in transforming its political order, starts to consolidate democracy and so manages to institute a wholly new pattern of civil-military relations, it may well be in India’s interest to ensure this state is both secure and prosperous. India could then discuss possible ways of resolving the Kashmir dispute while allowing greater access to its own burgeoning market as it moves toward normal diplomatic relations.

In the end, the question of whether or not a stable, secure and prosperous Pakistan is in India’s national interest is too simplistic. Instead, the key issue is the likely internal dimensions and features of such a state. A failure to address the question of the domestic political makeup of such a state, which will in turn ultimately affect its external orientation, would offer a very poor guide to policymakers in India. 


Sumit Ganguly, a professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington is currently a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.