When Pakistani militants killed 18 Indian soldiers at the village of Uri in Kashmir recently, the Indian drums of war were sounded. In the past, India had acted with “strategic restraint” in response to terrorism from Pakistan. However, this time was to be different. Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had campaigned for prime minister, in part, on a tougher stance toward handling of Pakistan. After Uri, the BJP cadres and activists of all stripes were in a frenzy, a frenzy perhaps best captured by the BJP national general secretary’s comment, “For one tooth, the whole jaw. Days of so-called strategic restraint are over.”
However, Modi’s response to the Uri attack has been remarkably, and some would say courageously, balanced. In essence he has been presented with a version of the classical “guns vs. butter” trade-off model. On the “guns” side, he authorized so-called “surgical strikes” across the Line of Control in Kashmir. These strikes were said by the Indian military to have caused “significant” casualties at launch pads for terrorists planning strikes into Kashmir and Indian metropolitan areas. Later Indian reports indicated that “significant” meant scores of casualties and the destruction of a half dozen launch pads.
Perhaps even more remarkable than the “guns” of military actions taken on September 29 was the balancing “butter” in the speech that Modi had delivered just five days earlier. In the speech given before thousands of BJP party members, many lusting for military action against Pakistan, Modi called for war of a different kind. “I call upon people of Pakistan to come forward, fight a war on who defeats unemployment, poverty and illiteracy first. Let’s see who wins.” He mixed economic and military themes when he said, “While India exports software, Pakistan exports terrorism across the world.”
Unquestionably, India has suffered greatly from terrorism based in or inspired by Pakistan. The United States had its “9/11,” but, not long thereafter, extremists tried to decapitate the entire Indian political leadership by blowing up the country’s parliament. On December 13, 2001, terrorists dressed as Indian police attacked the Parliament. Only quick action and luck (the attackers mistakenly ran into the Vice President’s motorcade) caused all five attackers to be killed, one being blown to bits when his suicide vest was hit with a bullet.
Tensions increased when the terrorists were identified as members of groups headquartered in Pakistan. War seemed imminent five months later when an attack on the family quarters of Indian soldiers in Kashmir resulted in 34 deaths. In India’s “26/11” (November 26, 2008), terrorists from Pakistan attacked Mumbai, killing 166 and wounding hundreds more. And these are only a few of the major incidents. Even before the Uri attacks, the government of India counted more than 700 deaths attributable to terrorist attacks since 2005, the vast majority of these showing support originating from Pakistan.
However, in responding to the Uri crisis, Modi has shown an appreciation for the fact that war is bad not only for living things, but also for Indian economic development. India’s world-leading exports are in the field of software and information technology enabled services. All-out war would not only damage production facilities, it would undermine the foreign confidence in security of data and certainty of services necessary for the industry to survive. Modi’s manufacturing initiative “Make in India” would also have trouble finding investors for plants under the threat of destruction.
New York Times columnist Tom Friedman famously wrote of the 2002 India-Pakistan cease-fire, ”That was brought to us not by General Powell but by General Electric.” Not only did economic interests play a substantial role in India’s reaction in 2002, but also in the face of the more egregious attacks on Mumbai in 2008. In both instances, the need to foster economic security was a key factor in moderating the Indian response.
Modi’s “guns and butter” approach seems to have confounded both his militant friends and his militant enemies. Reaction to his BJP National Council speech was decidedly mixed among supporters on social media and in the press. Some viewed it as innovative to challenge the people of Pakistan to compete on economic and social challenges rather than go to a shooting war. Others felt it too weak in response to the Uri attack.
Most amazing was the immediate reaction of Pakistani leaders to the surgical strikes. They questioned whether the surgical strikes had actually taken place, as did some Indians. Perhaps this was understandable coming from Indians who sought a more robust military response from the Modi government. However, for Pakistani leaders, it seemed a way of arguing against further escalation. After all, if the surgical strikes had not actually occurred, there would be no need to revenge them.
At any rate, Modi’s approach seemed about right to the Indian business community.
The Bombay Stock Exchange and the value of the rupee dropped on news of the surgical strikes. Even so, business leaders backed the surgical strikes while maintaining that the world looks to India because of its strong economic performance and the attention it receives globally.
Thus, Modi has balanced the need to take military action against Pakistan while furthering his economic development agenda. Hopefully, he has provided a context in which both security and economic goals can be pursued. However, whether this balancing act will be successful ultimately remains to be seen.
While economic factors provide a balance against war for India, that is less true for Pakistan. To an extent, Modi is right when he says India exports software while Pakistan exports terrorism. Pakistan has no equivalent to the international software and information technology enabled services industry that drives so much of Indian export activity, and the country is much less prosperous.
Perhaps the surest way to economic prosperity in Pakistan is through the military. It is the most powerful institution in the country and arguably the only merit-based institution. Unfortunately many of its members view its reason for being as fighting India directly and through proxies. This is certainly true of the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the bureau in immediate control of covert activities. Unless the Pakistani military changes this perception of itself and there are greater economic incentives outside the military, the reaction of Pakistan to even the most calibrated of India’s strategic actions can be radical escalation and disproportionate violence.
Thus, as in many adversarial endeavors, there are no right and wrong answers on how to deal with terrorism emanating from Pakistan. There are only answers that are better and those that are worse. So far, Modi’s approach balancing guns and butter seems the better answer.
Raymond E. Vickery Jr. is a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former U.S. assistant secretary of commerce, trade development. He is also a senior advisor at Albright Stonebridge and Of Counsel at Hogan Lovells.