The Narendra Modi government’s Pakistan policy has largely stood on three pillars – increasing pressure on Pakistan, avoiding talks with the Pakistan army and getting the world to trust India’s judgement on the regional situation.
This policy is yielding diminishing returns and, beyond a point, these pillars are not compatible with each other. If New Delhi keeps raising the temperature, the next crisis will be scarier and more dangerous than the last one.
Inevitably, that means India will have to choose between losing the confidence of a worried international community or actually talking to Pakistan.
Perils of populism
Despite ominous comments from Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s hints at changes to the no-first-use nuclear doctrine, neither state wants war.
Then, why the rhetoric?
The kind of nationalism that has risen to dominate many countries, including India and Pakistan, is remarkably similar – illiberal, prideful, intolerant of dissent and diversity, and yet enormously anxious about international status, economic growth and personal success. The new voter feels that his country has been embarrassingly weak for too long and must demonstrate its strength.
However, the reality is that war between India and Pakistan would be an expensive and a bloody slog with no clear winner, thanks to a balance of military power between the archrivals. The risks that come with that kind of nuclear conflict are unacceptable to global financial markets, which disciplines governments far more powerfully than the United Nations or major states.
The Khan and Modi governments have made huge promises to their public about growth and development that they are struggling to deliver on. It goes without saying that war is terrible for investment and worse for the national budget.
Imran Khan and Modi have made huge promises about growth, that they are struggling to deliver on.
Much has been made of Pakistan’s difficult choices. Faced with an economic crisis, it cannot risk the Financial Action Task Force and other similar bodies labelling it as non-cooperative in the fight against terror financing. Pakistan has offered to take action against anti-India jihadi groups and subject itself to verification by American and British Intelligence.
Meanwhile, Indian economic growth has slowed to its lowest rate in six years and there are serious fears that the worst is yet to come. In such an environment, loud talk with no action suits both governments.
The short answer is that aggressive bluffing can easily get out of hand.
Nationalistic governments often miscalculate the risks of what they think of as symbolic actions short of war, and their supporters, conditioned to provide unquestioning support, are unlikely to encourage the leadership to step on the brakes. The more people cheer and shout at their TV screens, the more tempted governments will be to extract a little more political capital from the moment.
Despite the government’s media clampdown and strict curfews in the Kashmir Valley, it is clear that the local population, including the pro-union political class, has been almost entirely alienated. Violence is going to surge, and the Modi government’s policy of treating all violence as Pakistani inspired and retaliating on Pakistani soil means that it is only a matter of time before we see the next Pulwama-Balakot type crisis.
Pakistan’s carefully stage-managed return of the downed Indian Air Force pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, helped rapidly de-escalate the crisis.
This was neither an act of kindheartedness nor of weakness: the mistaken assessment of the Pakistan army and Khan was that the Modi government would be open to talks after it secured victory in the general elections. Once Pakistan demonstrated its retaliatory military capabilities after the Balakot strike, it made sense to de-escalate sooner rather than later and earn the goodwill for the talks that would follow before long.
Now that the Pakistani military has realised they were terribly wrong, they have every reason to let the next crisis escalate until the rest of the world becomes seriously worried.
Kashmir itself is of limited interest to the rest of the world, but the prospect of war between two nuclear powers is a different matter.
If India is unwilling to talk to Pakistan and a crisis breaks out, you can be sure that next time Trump’s, or his successor’s offer to mediate will return louder than ever; Russia’s slight wavering regarding Kashmir in the UN Security Council will worsen, and the EU will want to see steps to reduce the chance of war between two nuclear-armed powers.
In short, the moment that war seems like a serious risk, India will not be able to define the issue on its own terms. This is especially likely if Pakistan continues to work to assuage the international community’s concerns about terrorism.
Rocky way forward
The easiest way to deflect pressure and ensure that Kashmir is a bilateral, and not a multilateral, issue is to talk to Pakistan, the very thing that Rawalpindi has sought, and New Delhi avoided, for so long.
The one silver lining in such a situation would be that the Modi government’s dominance over television and social media means that its supporters are unlikely to question a policy U-turn, especially if it is masked by sufficiently belligerent rhetoric.
Pakistan has lived with steroid-driven nationalism and the associated irrational exuberance for much longer than India. They have lived through the full range of highs and lows, while India, which has embraced this kind of thinking much more recently is yet to experience its catastrophic costs.
Nevertheless, both countries are attempting to adjust to this new ideological reality as they fumble towards a new equilibrium. The fact remains that even if proxy warfare between the two ceases, the reality of two vast, well-equipped, nuclear-armed forces staring down each other’s barrels is deeply sobering to the rest of the world, even if it intoxicates some Indians and Pakistanis.
The fewer reminders the world has of this situation, the less likely it is to interfere as South Asia attempts to build a better future and somehow survive its hyper-nationalist phase.
This article first appeared on Quartz.