Since 1990 India has had a consistent policy towards Pakistan: “Let them hit us with whatever they can, we will harden our defences but not retaliate in kind." The policy has been remarkably successful. In this period, Pakistan has descended to chaos, whereas India, the world’s third-largest economy, is talked of as a potential great power.

However, over the years, politicians, many of them from the Bharatiya Janata Party, have instead argued that this success is somehow a failure – and in not hitting back at Pakistan, India has been the loser.

This is the worm that is eating the insides of the Modi government’s Pakistan policy.

Modi, on assuming power, made dramatic outreaches to Pakistan, such as calling Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony and his drop-in visit to Lahore on his birthday last December. But he has lacked the stamina that is so vital in dealing with Pakistan.

There is a view, of course, that he has not been able to align his domestic political compulsions of winning state elections on a strong anti-Pakistan ticket, with his foreign policy of seeking regional stability and pre-eminence.

In recent remarks to an all-party meeting on Kashmir and on Independence Day, Modi has now sent an over-the-top signal, expressing concern over human rights violations in Balochistan. In doing so Modi and his team are fully aware of the fact that this will only confirm the Pakistani establishment’s worst fears about India’s role in aiding the Baloch insurgency.

This is payback for Pakistan’s claim that it only provides moral and political support for the Kashmiri insurgency, whereas the grim reality was listed by Modi in his speech at the all-party meeting on Kashmir – 34,000 AK-47s, 5,000 RPG launchers, 90 light machine guns, 12,000 revolvers, 63 tonnes of explosives seized and 5,000 foreign militants killed by the security forces since the start of the 1989-1990.

A word about Balochistan. In 1947, the Khan of Kalat (which is modern Balochistan), along with his adviser advocate Mohammed Ali Jinnah, sought the status of Nepal from his British overlords. Jinnah argued that all princely states had the right to do what they wanted – even seek independence. Jinnah hoped to embarrass and cause problems for India. However, later, when the Khan of Kalat wanted to remain independent, Jinnah made an about-turn and the Pakistanis subsequently forcibly annexed Kalat. Nehru, the man of principles that he was, insisted all through that princely states had no right to independence and specifically opposed Baloch independence, along with other claimants – Bhopal, Hyderabad and Jammu and Kashmir.

Dealing with Pakistan

India's policy on Pakistan was not set by IK Gujaral, as many believe, but by another “tough guy” – Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar. It was he who refused to authorise retaliatory covert operations against Pakistan in 1991. This was a time when the situation in Punjab was none too good and Kashmir was going up in flames. That is why barring the late Sarabjit Singh, Islamabad does not have a single Indian against whom it has built up a case for terrorist actions on Pakistani soil, whereas India has a massive dossier on how Pakistan has armed, equipped, trained tens of thousands of militants to operate in Jammu and Kashmir as well as scores of terrorists, Indians and Pakistanis, to set off bombs and attack targets in other parts of India.

Whether through Pakistani nationals or disaffected Indians sheltering in Pakistan, terrorist outrages against India steadily grew, culminating in the ghastly Mumbai attack in 2008, yet India held its hand and endured.

As Pakistan itself began to suffer a blowback in the hands of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Islamabad sought to blame India for its travails. But its claims found few takers. Charges of Indian interference in Balochistan or Federally Administered Tribal Areas remained what they were – allegations without a shred of proof.

In 2009, in the context of sharing real time information on terrorist threats after his Sharm-al-Sheikh meeting with his Pakistani counterpart, Manmohan Singh, in a fit of generosity, agreed to put the following into the joint statement:

“Prime Minister Gilani mentioned that Pakistan has some information on threats in Balochistan and other areas".

There was a furore in India because it was felt that Singh had needlessly pandered to Islamabad’s paranoia. India had been doing nothing, and now the government was giving Pakistan a means of claiming equivalence with India’s constant references to Pakistani activities in Jammu and Kashmir.

Mumbai and Sharm-el-Sheikh effectively ended Manmohan Singh’s hope of détente with Pakistan. The Indians were frustrated by the turn of events because it seemed that every effort to reach out to Pakistan was being met by bigger and more elaborate acts of terrorism whose origins, despite claims to the contrary, seemed to reach to the Pakistani deep state.

When the Modi government came to power, it reflected the deep unhappiness of Indians with their condition and Modi’s powerful electoral rhetoric helped him to take his party to the first majority government in the country since 1989.

Effective deterrence

Pakistan began to worry about the Indian attitude towards Pakistan in the run up to the General Elections of 2014. Foreign policy had not been a major issue in the campaign. Rhetoric against Pakistan was par for the course, but nothing unusual. It was at this time that Ajit Doval’s comment in February 2014, on how a new government may respond to Pakistani sub-conventional conflict surfaced:

“You can do one Mumbai, but you may lose Balochistan”.

Later, after he was appointed National Security Adviser and speaking in October 2014 at the Munich Security Conference meeting organised in New Delhi, Doval spoke of the need to maintain “effective deterrence” against terrorism emanating from Pakistan.

Just what this implied was not clear, except that when using the language more common to nuclear weapons, it would clearly mean the capacity to hit back in a like manner. In the speech, Doval also disclosed the other, international leg of the Modi policy – seek the passage of an international convention on terrorism as a means of cornering Pakistan diplomatically.

Let us be clear all we have as of now is a throwaway line of Doval dating from before he became NSA, the capture of a naval officer who Pakistan alleges was operating in Balochistan and now Modi’s statement expressing concern over the human rights issues in Balochistan.

None of this makes for a compelling case that India is, indeed, sheltering, arming and training Balochis or setting off bombs in Balochistan. What it does reflect, though, is a shift of gears in New Delhi, signalling its intention of a new direction with reference to Pakistan.

In great measure this has a domestic context. Attacking Pakistan plays well with a domestic audience during elections. Modi’s bitterest attacks on Pakistan came in the context of his attacks on Arvind Kerjriwal and the Delhi State Assembly Elections, and earlier in the Gujarat elections that led to his appointment as chief minister in 2001.

As of now, the BJP’s main focus is in winning the state assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh in 2017. The party and Modi assign this as the highest political priority they have. So we may see even more rhetoric and threats, possibly accompanied by tit-for-tat bombardment on the Line of Control, especially in the Jammu area.

Walking the talk

However in our capacities we are nowhere near Doval’s “effective deterrence” on terrorism. Pakistan retains the initiative in this area for the simple reason that it has the infrastructure in terms of trained personnel already in place for carrying out attacks against soft targets, which does not require any particular bravery or effort.

On the other hand, escalating from rhetoric to actual cross-border attacks would actually hurt India more than Pakistan. Despite periods of firing, the ceasefire holds. Its breakdown will enable Islamabad to step up infiltration through providing cover for incoming militants, and by destroying large portions of the LOC fencing.

India can, of course, stir up trouble in Pakistan through the same route that Islamabad uses against India – the Gulf. Pakistan has numerous fault-lines – religious, sectarian, ethnic differences among its people – which can be made wider. But at the end of the day, we need an answer to that big question: Is it in India’s interest to deepen Pakistan’s turmoil and possibly help break it up?

This is a question with multiple answers and intriguing consequences. Encouraging the breakup of a nuclear armed state is a high-risk strategy with a significant risk of a blowback. This could range from the flow of refugees into India, to nuclear weapons and materials falling into the hands of bad guys and to an actual nuclear strike.

With power, they say, comes responsibility and so, the world community would expect New Delhi to pick up the pieces of the country it breaks. Remember Colin Powell admonition to George W Bush on the war in Iraq: “You break it, you own it.”

Does India have the time or the money to afford this policy? Clearly not.

The current decades are our moment of opportunity to achieve our most important national aim – the elimination of poverty through sustained high economic growth. For this we need regional peace, not tit-for-tat covert wars.

As far back as 1992, the confession of Lal Singh aka Manjit Singh revealed the Pakistani strategy of targeting of institutions and symbols of India’s economic potential such as its Stock Exchange, nuclear power plants, and busy commercial centres and hotels with a view of undermining India as an investment destination.

And this is where we come back to the wisdom of our past leaders from Chandrashekhar onwards. They clearly understood that economic growth was our key national objective, not revenge or undermining some other country. So there was need to rein in the national ego, deflect blows as they come and focus on the issue of transforming the lives of the poor and wretched of the land. Their foresight has become clearer as Pakistan slipped into an abyss and India is seen as the future of the world economy.

A regression at this stage, largely driven by electoral considerations and the egos of ultranationalist hawks, is a recipe for disaster. We need to grasp the essence of Deng Xiaoping’s 24-character strategy which was to advise his successors to keep the Chinese national ego in check so as to become a world leader that China has become.

“Observe calmly;
secure our position;
cope with affairs calmly;
hide our capacities and bide our time;
be good at maintaining a low profile; and
never claim leadership.”

India, too, needs to secure its position and deal with its internal problems calmly rather than throw its weight around in the neighbourhood.

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation.