Can India counter?

India's diplomatic strategy must seek to raise the stakes for Washington and Beijing by making them more responsible in their roles.

India will, declared Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, provide a “befitting reply” to Pakistan for its terror attacks. Usually, such statements are taken seriously. But in this case, we can expect Pakistan to brush aside such exhortations as empty talk.

Neither will Washington or Beijing take Indian opprobrium seriously.  And they are not wrong in their assessment. India’s political elite and security community has failed spectacularly in formulating a viable response to Pakistan’s cross-border proxy war. Each terror incident invokes anger, frustration, and finally, a resigned acceptance. A powerful image underlying the political elite’s prism towards Pakistan is India’s economic stability constrains Indian options. An Indo-Pakistan crisis will frighten investors and isolate India from the world economy. Although in an age of interdependence such an assumption appears intuitive, it is really a self-constructed myth to justify inaction.

India’s $2 trillion economy has its own fundamentals and can ride out spurts of brinkmanship and arguably even limited conflicts. Nevertheless, this notion that India’s economy requires a Pakistan policy that looks the other way to cross-border terror has had a pernicious effect on New Delhi’s strategic thinking. Instead of seeking to develop a credible counter-strategy to Pakistan’s sub-conventional war, India’s security community has taken the lazy way out.

Every action is deemed as escalatory and therefore, militarily and politically unsound. And this is precisely what the political leadership is eager to hear from its military planners. Consequently, year after year, billions of dollars are expended in importing cutting-edge capabilities while the most relevant sub-conventional and non-conventional tools such as enhancing high-tech surveillance and human intelligence across the entire border, and cultivating assets deeper inside Pakistan remain not even a peripheral goal.  The core logic behind successful deterrence strategies is to develop the ability to impose proportionate costs on one’s adversary. The key word is proportionate. It is only when the prospect of a credible and commensurate reprisal is expected that a revisionist state will alter the cost-benefit calculus of its proxy actions. India’s tough rhetoric has become meaningless because the Pakistan Army will never oblige India in a slow-motion frontal conventional collision where India’s full superiority comes into play.  If India’s political leadership really wants to craft a strategy that makes Rawalpindi rethink its proxy war, the menu of choices is clear. Develop non-conventional capabilities to disrupt and degrade Pakistan’s terror infrastructure.

Much of this activity occurs in the shadows, and, is today a repertoire in the quivers of all great and regional powers. Indian exceptionalism has come at the price of Indian blood, vulnerable border states, and, dare one say international scorn. To be sure, such capacities need time and policy continuity to become effective. For its overt posture, India’s political and military leadership needs to adopt a slightly less risk-averse or a more normal posture! The entire premise underlying India’s paralysis to Pakistan’s proxy war is the “one-step escalation” scenario. According to this theoretical construction, given the nuclear age, any kinetic reaction by India to Pakistani-sponsored terrorism would quickly escalate to a nuclearised crisis making the game simply not worth the candle.

Western punditry has provided so much legitimacy to such a dubious argument that Indian elites now inhabit a hypothetical world where Pakistan has the upper hand in every Indo-Pakistan crisis. As any honest strategist will attest to nuclear weapons at best can only deter nuclear weapons. If nuclear weapons had such magical qualities that could paralyse Indian defence planners, then Pakistan would not invest in such a large conventional land force. Rawalpindi knows better. The nuclear bluff once called opens a pathway to suicide, which no state would ever choose. Of course, this is not to suggest that India can ever go back to the pre-nuclear world and engage in unrestrained conventional coercion. Rather, the key point is to visualise nuclear weaponry as every major power does: an insurance of last resort. That last resort or “red line” varies across states but in no case can nuclear weaponry deter small-scale actions of violence.

Conventional posture
Once India’s conventional posture is relaxed via thoughtful doctrinal innovations – not a lumbering Cold Start doctrine conceived for a pre-nuclear era – and matched with the pursuit of select capabilities such as precision strike systems, special forces, cyber and electronic warfare etc, the deterrence benefits will gradually become evident. It is true that such a strategy entails a degree of risk of escalation.

But given the extremely limited goals, if India seeks security then it will have to acquire the resolve and skill to balance the scales with Pakistan. India’s geostrategic goal in the subcontinent is to shake Pakistan and its patrons out of their comfort zone whereby responsibility for regional stability has somehow become solely India’s burden, despite Islamabad being the de-stabilising actor. While South Asia’s security is a bilateral India-Pakistan responsibility, given the unique nature of Pakistan’s alliance with America and its all-weather partnership with China, it is also a wider quadrilateral responsibility involving India, Pakistan, US and China. India’s diplomatic strategy must seek to raise the stakes for Washington and Beijing by making them more responsible in their roles as the twin sponsors of Rawalpindi. In fact, India’s stable equations with Washington and Beijing might actually offer an under-leveraged buffer to facilitate crisis management during any Pakistani brinksmanship if it attempts to challenge a new Indian deterrent posture.

Pakistan’s strategy to impose little cuts on India, no single one large enough to provoke a reprisal but enough to bog India down psychologically and accept a running stream of casualties in its heartland for decades, has been as much Pakistan’s strategic success as India’s sheer failure to adapt its military-strategic and diplomatic ideas.

(The writer is research scholar at King’s College, London)

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