Without question, the Bharatiya Janata Party is most hawkish of India’s national parties. Over the course of his Lok Sabha campaign, Narendra Modi criticised the Congress government for taking Pakistan too lightly and promised that his government would project an assertive, unflinching India. Modi had the chance to prove this earlier this year, when he called off foreign secretary-level talks after the Pakistani High Commissioner met Kashmiri separatist leaders just before the meeting.

Now Modi’s government has taken things even further. Faced with a spate of what the government calls “unprovoked violations” of the ceasefire along India’s international border, including the deaths of eight civilians, defence minister Arun Jaitley on Thursday insisted that India would reply to these provocations in kind.

“Pakistan, in these attacks, has clearly been the aggressor,” Jaitley said. “But it must realise that our deterrence will be credible. If Pakistan persists with this adventurism, our Forces will make the cost of this adventurism unaffordable.”

Only a little while earlier, the Prime Minister had said that “everything will be alright soon”, while referring to the troubles along the border. A number of media outfits reported that Modi had given the armed forces a “free hand” to deal with Pakistan.

But what does that mean? What can India do to “make Pakistani adventurism unaffordable”?

Considering the options

“It’s actually very simple, we don’t have many options,” said Manoj Joshi, distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. “The government feels compelled to make these statements because of the elections. They’re falling into a trap, walking on the razor’s edge, and I would say this strategy of taking a hard line has not been thought through well.”

This latest round of warfare is taking place along the international border, but not the portion that comprises the Line of Control, which is usually the fault line for military action. Reports in the Indian press, based on government sources, have insisted that Pakistan has been taken aback by India’s determined reaction to aggression from their Rangers.

“The damage on the other side is so high that Pakistan is, according to an internal report sent to South Block by the Indian mission in Islamabad, ‘ducking for cover,’” reported Mail Today.

India is now considering shedding a convention that dates back to Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure as prime minister. In 2003, after nearly six years of continuous strife along the Line of Control, the former prime minister came to a ceasefire agreement with Pakistan that emphasised dialogue. A key aspect of this is the flag meetings between the Border Security Force and Pakistan’s Rangers, which takes place every day at the Wagah checkpoint.

“Pakistan should stop this unprovoked firing and shelling if it wants peace,” Jaitley said on Thursday. “As long as that continues, how can there be peace? How can you talk when firing is on?”

Escalating the situation

This suggests that India is willing to escalate as long as Pakistan continues with unprovoked fire. Here New Delhi does have options, but each comes with consequences: “You can do what you were doing before, which is that, when they bombard you, you bombard them,” Joshi said. “You can block their communications on certain key areas and we can hit them very hard, but you can only do it on the LoC and they can also hit you hard.”

Cross-border fighting isn’t new: it has taken place through much of Modi’s four-month tenure as Prime Minister. Things got so bad that there was a meeting between the Director-Generals of Military Operations of both countries in August to find ways to defuse the situation. But now, according to the Indian Express, the matter has become serious enough for the countries to specifically target civilian populations, to get the other side to back down.

As long as the skirmishes remain between the BSF and the Pakistan Rangers, the matter will continue in this way, affecting thousands of people without threatening major damage. But if the government decides to get the Army involved the warfare could escalate quickly. But Joshi says that the government does not have the deployed military capacity at the moment to take on Pakistan, so Army involvement is unlikely to make things better.

“The ceasefire on the Line of Control benefits India,” Joshi said. “They are a nuclear-armed country, we are a nuclear-armed country. Let’s say we launch a couple of bombs at them. They will launch bombs back, and there will be more retaliation. The real loser will be India. Pakistan is already a basket case and in hopeless condition. We are the ones trying to attract investment from around the world, which won’t be easy if the world community sees that bombs are falling.”