Policymakers in New Delhi face dilemmas from Pakistan, which are two-fold — the real threat Pakistan poses and India’s available responses.

Pakistan, political opposition, inconsistency, stagnation, Line of Control, conventional attack, political failures, Kashmir agenda, credible response, bilateral engagement, proxy war, real threat, Arka Biswas
Source: PTI

The incumbent Indian government has been criticised by numerous Indian strategic experts, academics, representatives of the political opposition and media for demonstrating an inconsistent Pakistan policy. The latest episode emerged after Prime Minister Narendra Modi surprised all by calling on the Pakistani leadership to join hands in eradicating poverty and diseases from the region. This followed National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s “secret meeting” with his Pakistani counterpart held in a “friendly and positive” ambience in Bangkok towards the end of last year. Given the incumbent Indian government’s larger stance to not engage in talks with Pakistan over the issue of terrorism, these two episodes have been argued to reflect the inconsistency of India’s Pakistan policy.

The inconsistency in question, however, is not new. New Delhi has often appeared to be in a dilemma in responding to and resolving the Pakistan problem. But while this has resulted in the stagnation of the relationship with Pakistan, but with occasional ups and downs, is the consistency in New Delhi’s inconsistent Pakistan policy that bad? Perhaps not.

New Delhi’s dilemmas

Policymakers in New Delhi face dilemmas from Pakistan, which are two-fold — the real threat Pakistan poses and India’s available responses.

The primary threat Pakistan poses to India is through its proxy war. Pakistan seeks to serve its revisionist agenda on Kashmir with its “bleed India with a thousand cuts” policy. Apart from supporting secessionists in Kashmir, the Pakistani establishment has allegedly planned major terrorist attacks across India, including on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, in Mumbai in November 2008 and at the Pathankot Air Force station in January 2016. While the use of terrorism as a state-policy has been a real threat that Pakistan presents, these terrorist attacks have also highlighted the gaps that had existed in India’s internal security and intelligence machinery and perhaps still do. These attacks must therefore be credited to both Pakistan’s use of terrorists as proxies and India’s failure to prevent the same.

The primary threat Pakistan poses to India is through its proxy war. Pakistan seeks to serve its revisionist agenda on Kashmir with its “bleed India with a thousand cuts” policy.

But, despite the persistence of Pakistan’s use of terrorism against India, it is important to note that such a policy has hardly served Pakistan’s Kashmir agenda. Other than the rise of unrest in Kashmir, part of which has been due to India’s internal political failures, Pakistan-backed secessionists in Kashmir have hardly had any significant successes to cause a major worry in New Delhi. Furthermore, the rise of unrest in Kashmir has only allowed New Delhi to justify the heavy presence of its army in the region and it is incomprehensible as to how that directly benefits Pakistan. The only plausible answer is that it draws international attention to the “plight” of the Kashmiri people. But that has hardly worked for Pakistan as most call on India and Pakistan to resolve the issue bilaterally. And in the recent years, this has back-fired with Pakistan being internationally targeted for using terrorism as a state-policy.

Meanwhile, Pakistan does not have the conventional means to serve its Kashmir agenda. The nuclear umbrella might have shielded Pakistan from a conventional attack by India across the Line of Control (LoC) or the international border in 1999. The Pakistani conventional aggression that led to the Kargil conflict with India, however, did not serve Pakistan’s Kashmir agenda either, since it did not have any advantage in conventional military strength over India. The same was also concluded by a RAND study conducted by Ashley Tellis, Christine Fair and Jamison Medby, which notes that “Pakistan now views Kargil-like operations as an ineffective means of dispute resolution.”

Credible choices?

Are there any credible responses available to New Delhi that could decisively address the threat Pakistan poses? Often after a major terrorist attack is perpetrated by Pakistan-based actors, pressure on New Delhi builds to launch a conventional attack in response. That option, however, is problematic for three reasons. First, despite the general perception, it is unclear if India enjoys significant advantage in operational military strength over Pakistan. For instance, following the Mumbai terror attack, New Delhi did consider the military option, but military planners, reportedly expressed their inability to launch an effective attack. Furthermore, many South Asian scholars argue that a conventional war between India and Pakistan would end in a stalemate, though this is likely to change in India’s favour in future. Second, a conventional attack could lead to the use of nuclear weapons. Pakistan has already threatened the first use of nuclear weapons in an armed conflict and India appears to have failed in credibly countering that nuclear threat to date. Third, a conventional war with Pakistan will push India’s economy back by a decade or more.


Often after a major terrorist attack is perpetrated by Pakistan-based actors, pressure on New Delhi builds to launch a conventional attack in response.


Meanwhile, diplomatic coercion and hard-lined positions such as the decision to not engage bilaterally is often employed following minor terrorist attacks or in general, depending on the nature of regime in New Delhi. But that Pakistan displays signs of non-unitary model of state — the army and the civilian government often appears to be in conflict — causes the standard tools of coercion, be them diplomatic or military, to be largely ineffective. There is indeed a concern, as also expressed by former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, that standard tools of coercion will only weaken the civilian government in Islamabad and strengthen Rawalpindi’s grip on Pakistan’s foreign policy.

Constructive bilateral engagement with Islamabad, on the other hand, causes the Indian government and leadership to lose domestic political mileage, particularly when that fails to curb terrorist attacks often planned in Rawalpindi — another consequence of Pakistan’s non-unitary model of state. Peace talks with Islamabad are then labeled as futile appeasements that fail to decisively address the Pakistan-problem.

Thus, India faces a limited problem from Pakistan and has limited credible choices of response. Even the US that has for decades been present in Pakistan militarily, economically and diplomatically appears to have grown frustrated with its inability to leverage the same in stopping Pakistan from abetting terrorists.

While credible means to decisively solve the limited problem Pakistan poses do not exist, New Delhi’s best route appears to be a mixture of hard and soft approach. This allows New Delhi to balance India’s internal political demands, economic ambitions, security imperatives vis-à-vis the threat from Rawalpindi, and the prospects of a responsible Islamabad that addresses India’s concerns. The resultant inconsistent Pakistan policy appears to be India’s best bet for now.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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