Prepare for More Volatile Times as India-Pakistan Ties Turn Unpredictable


India and Pakistan have been bumping along in their own version of a Cold War for so many years now that it is tempting to assume the status quo will continue. Parliamentary elections in India in April and May, however, are about to introduce a new element of unpredictability in the region just as the United States prepares to pull its combat troops out of Afghanistan. The likely winner, Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is already signalling a tougher stance on Pakistan. That will not necessarily translate into increased tensions between India and Pakistan – Modi has made it clear his priority will be reviving economic growth, which at below five percent is far short of the eight percent needed to absorb India’s rising population. What it does mean is that the two countries will find it far harder to read each other’s intentions – Modi is an unknown quantity on foreign policy – complicating diplomacy and raising the risk of a rapid escalation in tensions after any acts of terrorism which India suspects originated in Pakistan.

The BJP meanwhile may be hoping that signalling a tougher stance alone will be enough to deter Pakistan, sparing India the need to choose between military retaliation and investment stability. The problem with that calculation is that Pakistan’s own grip on militants is deteriorating. The army, which dominates foreign and security policy, has faced accusations for years of backing the Afghan Taliban to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan. Unable to contain a domestic Pakistani Taliban insurgency, the short-term temptation for the army will be to push more militants into Afghanistan even at the risk of greater long-term blowback into Pakistan from an energized Taliban movement next door.  Pakistan could also try to reduce pressure at home by easing curbs on jihadis more focused on India and Kashmir than on Afghanistan.  It is the combination of the two – a new government in India and Pakistan’s domestic situation, compounded by long-standing fears of an India-Pakistan proxy war in Afghanistan after US combat troops leave – that will make the region so volatile.

Of the many unknown factors in India’s elections – themselves so notoriously unpredictable that Modi is far from guaranteed to become prime minister despite a strong showing by the BJP in opinion polls – only one thing can be said for sure.  Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who provided continuity to India’s Pakistan policy for a decade since his appointment by the ruling Congress party in 2004, will no longer be in office.  Singh had hoped to make peace with Pakistan into his personal legacy. While he failed to push that through, he did maintain a policy of restraint, resisting calls for more aggressive action against Pakistan even after the 2008 attack on Mumbai by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group.

In comparison to Singh’s years in office, relations between India and Pakistan were far more explosive when the BJP was last in power from 1998 to 2004. Under former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, India publicly tested nuclear weapons, responded assertively to the incursion of Pakistani troops across the Line of Control dividing Kashmir in the 1999 Kargil conflict, and mobilised its troops along the entire border to threaten all-out war in 2001-2002 after Islamist militants attacked the Indian Parliament. But Vajpayee also made dramatic peace initiatives, while his government caved in to the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane in 1999, releasing prisoners in exchange for its passengers and crew.  There is no reason to assume quite such a rollercoaster ride again if Modi becomes prime minister – he is very much his own man and has sidelined many of the old guard in the BJP. But relations with Pakistan will still be far more unpredictable than they were under Singh.

Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat state in 2002 when more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, died in the revenge killings that followed the deaths of 59 Hindus in a train fire.    Modi denied accusations he had either ordered or turned a blind eye to the massacre and after years of investigations, an Indian court said it could not find evidence against him – though the suspicions were enough for the United States to deny him a visa and some members of his administration were convicted over their involvement. In a state election later in 2002, Modi entrenched his position with a consolidated Hindu vote, repeatedly citing Pakistan in campaign rallies to invoke a supposed Muslim threat.  Since then he has shifted from the Hindu right towards the political center, focusing on economics rather than communal politics. He remains a polarising figure, regarded with suspicion by Muslims in particular. But he has also reinvented himself so thoroughly, using Gujarat’s strong track record in economic development to project himself as a champion of good governance, that few can predict with confidence how he might handle relations with Pakistan.

Among the discernible threads is a professed zero tolerance for any acts of terrorism traced back to Pakistan. The BJP was humiliated by the 1999 hijacking of the Indian Airlines plane from Kathmandu to Taliban-controlled Kandahar, which it believed was masterminded by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.  It has promised this time around there will be no compromise on security. Modi has also aligned himself closely with the military, pledging at a campaign rally last year a patriotic and strong government to back up soldiers protecting India’s borders with Pakistan and China. This theme was taken up by Modi’s supporters last month when Australian journalist Neville Maxwell released a part of a classified Indian official report largely blaming former Congress Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for leading India into a disastrous border war with China in 1962. The release by Maxwell, who published a book on the war in 1970, helped Modi’s supporters argue that Congress had always been soft on security and that “the real failure for the 1962 debacle was not military, but political.”

The Indian Army has traditionally played a subservient role in Indian decision-making – unlike its Pakistani counterpart – though in recent years it has become more assertive. It resisted, for example, suggestions that India and Pakistan agree to a mutual troop withdrawal from the mountainous Siachen region beyond Kashmir as a first step towards broader peace moves. A closer alignment between the government and the army, combined with zero tolerance for acts of terrorism, could therefore in theory raise the risk of Indian military action against Pakistan. Tellingly, former BJP foreign minister Jaswant Singh said in a book published last year that during the 2001-2002 standoff – triggered by the attack on Parliament – the government had to restrain the military, which wanted ‘to have a crack’ at Pakistan.

Yet in the gridlocked relationship between India and Pakistan, theory does not easily translate into practice. For a start, India would have to be sure of Pakistan’s role in any act of terrorism – it also faces a problem of home-grown terrorism, including by Indian Muslims angered by the 2002 Gujarat violence. Secondly, a Modi government would have to figure out a problem that has restricted India’s options since both countries conducted nuclear tests in 1998 – how to carry out limited retaliation against Pakistan without this escalating into an all-out war, bringing with it the risk of the use of nuclear weapons.  All the possibilities mooted over the years carry their own drawbacks. Limited military strikes across the Line of Control in Kashmir, for example, could undermine India’s aim of having the ceasefire line recognised as the international border.  Covert action inside Pakistan, which already accuses New Delhi of supporting a separatist insurgency in Balochistan province, could increase Pakistani instability even further, if anything raising the threat posed by Pakistan-based militants. In short, for all the rhetoric, Modi will face the same challenge as his predecessors – after the nuclear tests neutralised India’s conventional superiority over Pakistan, it lost its ability to strike back without a heavy price to itself.

Among Modi’s other options will be improving domestic security – in line with an argument that has gained currency in recent years: there is little India can do to influence Pakistan’s behaviour and therefore it can only protect itself better to contain it.  If Modi were to be successful in improving domestic security, that could have a real impact on minimizing tensions. Yet previous governments – both BJP and Congress – have repeatedly failed to create a unified security structure that would allow India to head off acts of terrorism and respond more quickly when these occur.  Given India’s federal structure and multiple governance challenges, he would at best make limited progress.

Some of his supporters have also sought to repackage Modi as a new version of former Prime Minister Vajpayee, who tried to make peace with Pakistan while relying on his credentials among the Hindu right to shield himself from accusations of going soft on terrorism. They have suggested that Modi could likewise follow in Vajpayee’s footsteps by trying to bring peace to Indian Kashmir through unilateral measures designed to reduce resentment in the part controlled by India, while leaving Pakistan to run the part it holds as it chooses.

But Modi is not Vajpayee – the former is a relative outsider to Delhi politics, while the latter was previously a foreign minister with long experience of foreign affairs, respected as a statesman even by many of his political opponents. Moreover, Pakistan is not the same country it was when Vajpayee was in power; it is far more fragile, and its anti-India religious right is in a far stronger position to challenge or torpedo any peace moves.

While Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has said he wants better relations with India, his government seems unable to deliver. A promise to improve trade by granting India Most-Favoured Nation (MFN) status has been repeatedly postponed, most recently last month. The Difa-e-Pakistan Council (Defence of Pakistan Council), a group of hardliners that includes Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafez Saeed, continues to hold rallies denouncing both India and the United States. Maulana Masood Azhar, one of the prisoners released during the 1999 hijacking, was allowed to address a public rally in January calling for a renewed jihad to free Indian Kashmir. The government is holding peace talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has close ties with some of the militant groups more focused on Kashmir.   Sharif has also asked the United States to intercede with India on Kashmir, reviving an old Pakistani demand likely to irk India, which rejects outside interference in the dispute.

Given multiple foreign policy challenges, from Ukraine to Syria, it is tough to expect the United States to pay much attention to South Asia. But India-Pakistan crises have a way of flaring up quickly and unexpectedly – the Kargil border war in 1999, for example, appeared out of nowhere after a peace initiative by Vajpayee and Sharif. As it prepares to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan, the United States needs to make sure it has good enough diplomatic channels open with India and Pakistan to help defuse any crisis. Much as they resent U.S. interference, both countries have in the past relied on American diplomatic heft to prevent military confrontations from escalating into all-out war. India has also long called for better intelligence-sharing from Washington to prevent acts of terrorism in the first place. Given its precarious balancing act between India and Pakistan, that is a minefield for the United States, but one it must learn to navigate more effectively.


Myra MacDonald is a former Reuters journalist who has worked in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia. She was Chief Correspondent in France and Bureau Chief in India. After publishing Heights of Madness, a book on the Siachen war between India and Pakistan, she has focused in recent years on writing about Pakistan.


Photo credit: Al Jazeera English