With the dust having settled after the heaviest artillery and mortar exchange of the past decade on the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir, the situation is now clearer. India has intimated a change in policy, from merely having a shield to also wielding a sword. Defence Minister Arun Jaitley insisted that Pakistani “adventurism” would meet with “pain.” However, National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval also promised that if Pakistan behaved then India would be willing to let the rising tide of its economy lift all regional boats.
For its part, Pakistan has used its prime minister’s foreign policy and the NSA to spell out that it will not accept India’s hegemonic designs and will settle only for “meaningful” talks that lead to a settlement on the outstanding issue of Kashmir. Its army chief has vowed an “effective” response, while the more colorful former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf called for “inciting” rebellion in Kashmir.
So, not much has changed.
One thing looks different, however: India appears more aggressive on the LoC, in one report firing more than1000 mortar rounds in one day. And the reasons for this go beyond a mere shift in policy.
First, the firing has been in response to Pakistan’s raising of the stakes. Since the beheading of an Indian soldier in early 2013, the Indian Army has the mandate of giving a “befitting reply” at a time and place of its choosing. This time, with a soldier reportedly killed in an IED attack in Balnoi sector, the opportunity presented itself.
Second, India is reporting more infiltration attempts, probably a result of the unprecedented rains on the anti-infiltration fence along the LoC. The Army’s spokesman in Kashmir explained the spurt as Pakistan preparing to disrupt the impending elections in Jammu and Kashmir and as the annual last-ditch infiltration before winter. Additionally, the firing sets the stage for the elections in Jammu and Kashmir by warning off Pakistan.
Finally, the Indian government has gained some electoral advantages in the run-up to provincial elections, during which Prime Minister Narendra Modi alluded to “shutting up” Pakistan’s army by leaving it “screaming.” Having demonstrated that this Indian government is different from its predecessor, there are hints of a revival of talks as early as the forthcoming SAARC gathering in Kathmandu in November.
The firing could also be said to have kicked-off India’s grand strategy, aimed at economic development over Modi’s ten-year timeline. In its initial phase, the government is focused on bolstering its position, taking political gains from projects already underway such as the recent test flight of the Nirbhay cruise missile or the launch of the Vikramaditya aircraft carrier. To quote the NSA at his address at the Munich Security Conference in New Delhi, it is India’s “effective deterrence” against terrorism.
All in all, whether it be in confronting Pakistan or China, this Indian government has adopted a more aggressive posture, even if in actual policy terms the changes are mostly subtle, such as rescinding environmental constraints on road building in the fragile Himalayas.
Strategic commentary by analysts ranging from realist theoretician Rajesh Rajagopalan to practitioner Ashok Mehta advises the government to tread more softly. Their arguments are based on the strategic logic that India can ill afford to be tested prematurely on either front. In the event of a conflict with Pakistan, it is India that has something to lose, not Pakistan. Against China, India might be able to give a credible account of itself, but the costs would be immense – the government has just set aside $13 billion of an intended $100 billion over the next ten years to plug the gaps the strategists have outlined.
However, the strategic commentary does not quite capture the ongoing change taking place. Previous governments have shown an admirable distaste for militarism. They might have played a strategic game, including, if Musharraf is to be believed, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Baluchistan, but it was more subtle and without the current grandstanding.
In contrast, the Modi government has interpreted firing episodes along the LoC as giving the military a free hand, a departure from the days when the military was stifled by bureaucratic layers and diplomatic niceties. Meanwhile, the government has agreed to a national war memorial and will also appease the military with the expected pay commission. It has kept the ministerial weight on the military light by persisting with a part-time defense minister, despite his ill health. This enables Modi to forge a direct relationship with the military himself through repeated visits, the most recent one being to Siachen.
The seeming responsiveness of Modi to the military can potentially transform civil-military relations from objective civilian control, relying on military professionalism alone, to subjective civilian control reliant on affinity. The goal could be to bring about a convergence of thinking between the political master and the subservient military.
Clearly, if the sociological perspective is adopted, there is more to the LoC firing and increased visibility of the military than strategic commentary lets on.
Ali Ahmed is author of India’s Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia (Routledge 2014). He blogs at www.ali-writings.blogspot.in.