The new Indian government has pursued a noticeably harder line toward Pakistan-based terrorism than its predecessor. During the recent electoral campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for a “zero-tolerance policy” and promised to “Talk to Pakistan in Pakistan’s language because it won’t learn lessons until then.” He has responded to the ongoing firefights along the Kashmir divide with aggressive shelling. Consonant with his tough-guy image, he boasts that “The enemy has realised that times have changed and their old habits will not be tolerated,” and displaying his skill in wordplay he proclaims that “This is not the time for empty talk [‘boli’] … but for bullet [‘goli’] for our soldiers.”
Mr. Modi’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, stated last week that while New Delhi is willing to talk with Islamabad, “effective deterrence” is key to dealing with Pakistan. Referring to the cross-border skirmishes in Kashmir, Indian Defense Minister Arun Jaitley similarly warns that “Our conventional strength is far more than theirs and therefore if they persist with this, the cost to them would be unaffordable. They will also feel the pain of this kind of adventurism.” And a senior government official reports that “The prime minister’s office has instructed us to ensure that Pakistan suffers deep and heavy losses.”
The merits of this tougher posture have sparked a lively debate within India. Some observers caution that “machismo has never worked as a plan against Pakistan” and that an approach based solely on coercion is “a dangerous game” that could easily spin out of control. A former Indian envoy to Pakistan contends that a policy of escalatory response is “what the Pakistani army wants and we are falling into this trap.” Others, however, argue (here, here and here) that Mr. Modi has no choice but to reply robustly to what are deliberate Pakistani tests of his resolve.
But beyond this debate, there are other problems associated with Modi’s new line toward Pakistan that have so far escaped much notice. The first is that the coercive policy does not differentiate between jihadi groups over which Pakistan has some control and those that operate entirely in defiance of the Pakistani state and view triggering conflict between New Delhi and Islamabad as a way to advance their own interests.
This problem is rooted in what can be called the Sorcerer’s Apprentice syndrome, from Goethe’s classic tale about the dangers of Pakistan’s habit of conjuring up proxies it cannot ultimately handle. A timely example occurred two months ago when jihadi forces assaulted a naval dockyard in Karachi, apparently with the aim of seizing a Pakistani frigate that would be used to attack Indian warships with anti-ship missiles. So far, New Delhi shows no evidence of even recognizing the deterrence conundrum raised by such actions.
The risks of this approach are compounded by a second, even more basic, problem. The Modi government seems to believe that it can pursue a get-tough approach without the bother of engaging Islamabad diplomatically. Despite Modi’s active courting of India’s other neighbors, a leading spokesman of his political party argues that New Delhi has no interest or reason to focus on Pakistan until Islamabad proves its credibility as a negotiating partner by lifting the shadow of terrorism. According to media reports, Modi’s government is in no mood to take the first step to de-escalate cross-border tensions or resume diplomatic talks.
In August, New Delhi abruptly cancelled foreign secretary-level talks on the grounds that the Pakistani ambassador had continued with the longstanding practice of meeting with Kashmiri separatists. This reaction may have been right in principle. But in practical terms, it amounted to a demand that Pakistan – which draws much of its national identity from the Kashmir conflict – make a significant diplomatic concession without receiving anything of importance in return. This was certainly no deal that any civilian government in Islamabad could accept as the price for merely beginning a conversation with Modi’s team, much less one that was then embroiled in a deep political crisis at home and uncertain of the military leadership’s allegiances.
More recently, New Delhi has rebuffed other diplomatic overtures from Islamabad and Mr. Modi failed to take the time to meet with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif when both were in New York for last month’s annual conclave of the U.N. General Assembly.
Indeed, the Indian government is in danger of becoming captive to its hawkish rhetoric. Defense Minister Jaitley emphasizes that “Of course we can talk to Pakistan, but it is up to Pakistan to create an atmosphere for talks.” Given the turmoil inside Pakistan, it will be difficult to start any sort of meaningful dialogue with Islamabad as long as that condition is strictly insisted upon.
A third problem is even more fundamental. Mr. Modi appears to believe he can revitalize India’s great-power prospects without the trouble of reaching a basic accommodation with Pakistan. Yet New Delhi’s continuous ructions with Islamabad have constantly proven vexatious to its larger ambitions. They sap precious national resources (including the armed forces) and divert the attention of those leaders who prefer to look to larger arenas. They also create a paradox: India yearns for a place in the first ranks of world power and yet cannot establish much sway over its own neighbors. Despite the common civilizational and historical links that permeate South Asia, New Delhi has been unable to integrate the region in the same way that Beijing has economically stitched together the much more culturally diverse and geographically disperse East Asian area.
Ignoring Pakistan may well score short-term political points at home but it is a poor strategy for the longer-term items on Mr. Modi’s agenda.
Crafting the right blend of deterrence credibility and substantive engagement with rival states is a hard task for any government. But so far, the Modi government seems fixated one objective while paying little heed to the other.
David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm, and heads its practice on South Asia. He can be reached via Twitter @DavidJKarl.