Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jun 01, 2019
The historic second term of Narendra Modi’s government can serve to exacerbate the material asymmetry between India and Pakistan. For this reason and others, and contrary to popular belief, Modi is best-placed to deliver a lasting solution to the 70-year-old dispute.
The Shishupala Doctrine: Narendra Modi and de-truncating the Indo-Pak power asymmetry

In 2016 after the terror attack at Uri, when India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a ‘surgical strike’, I made some diaristic jottings <1> on the principles of what I felt was a definitive change in the strategic philosophy of the Indian state under Modi, also predicting its wide acceptance in the Indian public square.

This essay is an opportunity to conceptually present it in a framework. The central argument here is that during his first term as prime minister Narendra Modi built the basis for a strategic approach which could take to a conclusion of a permanent settlement of the intractable territorial dispute with Pakistan.

The principle, which I now believe after India conducted the air strike at Balakot in Pakistan, following the terror attack at Pulwama, has evolved into the first signs of a doctrine I describe as the Shishupala Doctrine.

The name is taken from an incident in the great Hindu epic the Mahabharata where the divine avatar Krishna promises to forgive Shishupala, an impudent cousin, one hundred offences. At the occurrence of the hundred and first offence, though, the Krishna punishes Shishupala with death. The incident is a parable of forgiveness and punishment and is used as such in Hindu theology. Even in the Mahabharat, this paradigm is no solitary anecdote, and the critical arc of the story lies in a final offer of exemplary generosity — only five villages in lieu of a kingdom — which when rejected causes an apocalyptic war. The emphasis is on defining a method of exemplary generosity alongside a robust sense of retributive justice.

In making this theological analogy, I do not seek to make any direct causal argument between a principle in the Mahabharat, one of the two ancient Hindu epics, and Modi’s foreign policy action. Instead, I am proposing a timeless logic that lies beneath the cause-and-effect of political action.

My argument is akin to Graham Alison’s Destined for War which uses Greek mythology, and the war between the states of Athens and Sparta, to explain fear dynamics in the order transition between a Great Power (America) and a rising power (China).

It is acceptable to speak of ‘foreign policy and the Christian conscience’ (Keenan: 1989), or on ‘Catholic faith and the urgency of criminal justice reform’ (Ocasio-Cortez: 2018) and US President Donald Trump can be described as “a modern-day Esther, poised to defend Israel and save the Jewish people” <2> by his Secretary of State. In a similar vein, I seek to provide an underlying doctrine which explains philosophical resonances between this Hindu text and Modi’s political programme.

Modi himself constantly, in visual and text, reaffirms such influence — from making the gifting of the Bhagvad Gita, a seminal spiritual text from within the Mahabharat, a key diplomatic tradition, calling the book “India’s greatest gift to the world” <3> to quoting a Hindu parable, to and the 19th century Hindu mystic Ramakrishna Paramhansa in his seminal speech in parliament after his 2019 historic victory. <4>

Through the Shishupala Doctrine I wish to argue that Modi’s first term has seen the application of such framework whose purpose is to heighten what I call the cost of non-compliance.

In defining path of application of such a framework, I shall use the following conceptual tools:

  • First, I shall empirically demonstrate the see-saw of generosity/justice pattern in Modi’s behaviour towards Pakistan between 2014-19, and in doing so I shall note the rising cost of each non-compliance,
  • Second, I shall proceed to argue that in doing the above, and through a series of material measure juxtaposed with material realities within Pakistan, Modi aims to de-truncate the ‘truncated asymmetry’ (Paul 2006: 601) between India and Pakistan which might be the path to achieving lasting peace in the Indian subcontinent.

One of Modi’s first acts as a newly elected prime minister was to invite the heads of states of South Asia to attend his swearing-in ceremony with a special reach out to then prime minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif which was seen as an effort to thaw relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbours who have fought three wars and other skirmishes with one another, as Sharif arrived with a ‘message of peace’. <5> Soon afterwards in 2016, Modi made an impromptu visit to Pakistan to visit Sharif even attending a wedding in the family of the Pakistani prime minister. This was the first visit by an Indian prime minister to Pakistan in twelve years and was reported as “a significant sign the icy relationship between the two neighbours is thawing,” <6>, even taking a hit from his opposition back home in India for “grabbing headlines.” <7>

Only a week later, a terror attack at Pathankot suspected to be led the Pakistan-based jihadist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed killed seven Indian soldiers at an air base in Pathankot, but, even so, pushing the boundaries of cooperation, the Modi government allowed the unprecedented act of allowing a team of Pakistani investigators restricted access at the site of the attack to conduct joint investigations with their Indian counterparts <8>, a favour that was not reciprocated. <9>

This led to a breakdown in India-Pakistan official relations that remains unresolved.

This pattern has been followed subsequently. In 2016, the terror attack at Uri in India that killed 19 soldiers came only weeks after a courtesy phone call from Modi to Sharif before the Pakistani prime minister’s heart surgery.

The Modi government hit back with the announcement of ‘surgical strikes’ of Indian forces across the Line of Control in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, the hub of many terror camps.

The history of accommodation and diplomatic rapprochement-attack-retribution continued in the latest battle when the Modi government participated in the opening of the India-Pakistan Kartarpur Corridor for Sikh pilgrims despite naysayers at home. <10> The subsequent suicide bombing at Pulwama that killed forty Indian soldiers led to the breaching of the red line and breaking past assessments of deterrence with the Indian air strike on Balakot in mainland Pakistan.

In each case, with every betrayal of diplomatic initiative and trust, the Modi government expanded the nature of retribution. The cost of non-compliance steadily increased from the breaking of ties to the crossing the deterrence principle.

The debate on whether there had been any Indian surgical strike on Pakistani territory before the one announced by Modi is widely debated and inconclusive, but it is undisputed that the announcement redefined the existing norm, and in that sense, it was a “radical break from its (India’s) Pakistan policy,” <11> and India used multilateral diplomacy to gain legitimacy for the surgical strike as the US, through senior White House official Peter Lavoy noted that his country does “empathise with India’s perception that they do need to respond militarily.” <12>

Soon after the Pulwama terror attack, India was able to use diplomacy to gain early legitimacy for its pre-emptive retaliation through US support for its right to self-defense and specific call-out to Pakistan to curb cross-border terrorism and activities of jihadist groups like the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) which took responsibility for the Pulwama attack. <13> Following the retaliatory Balakot air strike, which was a major redefinition of the strategic red line of deterrence between India and Pakistan, India was able to win tacit and even overt (like in the case of France) diplomatic support from all major Western countries. Effective diplomacy also ensured that it was able to finally overcome longstanding misgivings of China to ensure that JeM leader Masood Azhar was declared a global terrorist in the United Nations.

Modi’s actions are aimed at restoring India’s deterrence credibility which suffered significantly after the inaction of the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance government in response to the Mumbai terror attack in 2008.

The purpose of these measures, I shall now proceed to explicate is to ultimately achieve a lasting settlement between the countries whose process might be understood through the framework of ‘truncated asymmetry’. (Paul: 2006) Truncated asymmetry explains the India-Pakistan conundrum where, even though materially and conventionally India is stronger, it cannot unilaterally force the solution it wants, “although India’s aggregate power capability is considerably greater than Pakistan’s, a number of factors mitigate and reduce that disparity, especially in Kashmir. More specifically, despite India’s much greater strength (global superiority) in terms of gross national indicators of power (territory, population, economy, and overall military forces), its superiority has been mitigated locally by the particular terrain of the Kashmir theater; Pakistan’s adoption of asymmetric strategies and tactics; great power balancing between the two states; and, since the late 1980s, Islamabad’s possession of nuclear weapons.” (Paul 2006: 601)

The consequences of this truncated asymmetry are multi-fold: since the chances of conflict blowing up to catastrophic levels are less (since neither “rival state is able to achieve decisive battlefield success or to impose a solution on the other coercively” <14>), it means that the elite among the challenger feels that the costs of the conflict are manageable and “the decision not to pursue a de-escalation process can be derived from a belief on the part of the challenger’s elite that continued struggle will eventually yield an advantage, despite immediate social, economic, and human costs.” (Paul 2006: 601) In such conflicts, neither state can convince the other that it is reasonable, and they tend to fight inconclusive fights “characterised by truces and ceasefire arrangements that do not change the territorial or political dynamics in any meaningful way.” (Ibid) If these states are nuclear states, they suffer from the stability/instability paradox (where the probability of a major war decreases but the occurrence of regular skirmishes increases), and the challenger state might trigger a crisis to attain strategic goals.

These are all facets of the India-Pakistan conflict, where due two nuclear-armed states have frequent skirmishes, but the possibility of a major war or a nuclear holocaust is not high. It is also a situation where neither state can force a conclusive settlement on its terms, and the challenger state, Pakistan, often proves conflict for its strategic goals.

It is my argument that while nuclear weapons will continue to provide a broader stability in the strategic dimension, the rising costs of Modi’s Shishupala Doctrine challenges Pakistan’s deployment of terror tactics. It does so by collapsing the distinction between the tactical and strategic theatres by raising the stakes of hostile engagement. If Pakistan continues to use terror tactics, it risks air strikes or even greater escalation, therefore leading to successful de-truncation of the asymmetry between the two countries.

My argument is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is doing two things: raising the asymmetry of retribution for non-compliance of peaceful status quo, as shown above in India’s graduating response to every attack, and simultaneously raising the material asymmetry so that the retributive actions has scope for application.

Additionally, the Balakot air strikes were undertaken only after India declared that it had completed its nuclear triad or the ability to launch a nuclear weapon from air, land and sea, with the arrival of the indigenously built INS Arihant. Without such capacity, which Pakistan is far from acquiring, India’s second-strike capability, <15> or the ability to counter attack after a first nuclear attack on its nuclear assets.

Alongside, India also acquired an anti-satellite weapon system, <16> only the fourth country in the world to do, which further accentuated the military asymmetry with Pakistan.

These measures have an effect of coercing Pakistan to respond to the arms race in kind, therefore in a Cold War-esque fashion it can create a war of attrition that makes the cost of priortising terrorism over internal development unbearable for Islamabad.

India already has a defense budget that is several times larger than Pakistan and its economic strength as one of the fastest growing countries in the world far outstrips Pakistan which has had to repeatedly borrow from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to cover its debt dues. <17>

The question of China’s support to Pakistan’s military is today more complicated through a slowdown in its economy, rising Islamic extremism within its borders and the vulnerability of its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor — which passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir — to Indian military action in any future conflict.

In Modi’s second term in office starting May 2019, the Indian government is committed to undertaking a “mega overhaul <18>” of the Indian armed forces designed to make it far more efficient. Completed alongside major arms purchases including a major consignment of fighter jets to overhaul the air force, the asymmetry between Indian and Pakistani forces is likely to increase.

Even on regionalism, Modi, who invited all leaders of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) to his first inauguration in 2014, specifically chose to invite a different set of leaders which including most of South Asian states and even Kyrgyzstan and Mauritius, especially leaving out Pakistan for the inauguration of his second term on 30 May 2019.

It is this distancing, rising asymmetry at every step, especially if the Pakistani economy continues to flounder, which I hypothesise is likely to lead to the de-truncating of the India-Pakistan truncated asymmetry — and will, in time, force the generals who are really the power behind the prime minister’s chair in Pakistan to settle with India. For a long time, it has been received wisdom in India-Pakistan ties that a deal would possibly be trashed out if there is a strong right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party government in New Delhi and when the Pakistani Army is fully in control across the border — because as hardliners neither are suspect in the eyes of their people. In Imran Khan, the Pakistani Army has an “army’s choice” <19> head of government and Modi leads one of the strongest governments ever in the modern history of India. The combination of a strategy of rising retribution and seeking rapprochement while at the same time pushing wide the asymmetry gap is the Shishupala Doctrine which when applied with two favourable governments, there might just be the ideal chance for a lasting peace agreement.











<10> Sareen, Sushant, ‘Indian govt has rushed into the Kartarpur corridor in inexplicable haste’, Observer Research Foundation, 30 November 2018.




<14> Paul, T.V. (2006), Why has the India-Pakistan Rivalry Been so Enduring? Power Asymmetry and an Intractable Conflict, Security Studies 15, no. 4 (October–December 2006), p. 601.







Allison, Graham (2017), Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Habermas, Jürgen, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1989 edition).

Ocasio-Cortez, Alexandria, ‘Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on her Catholic faith and the urgency of criminal justice reform’, America Magazine, 27 July 2018.

Paul, T.V. (2006), Why has the India-Pakistan Rivalry Been so Enduring? Power Asymmetry and an Intractable Conflict, Security Studies, 15:4, 600-630.

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