India’s New Security Order
A crisis and a crackdown have defined India’s security policy in 2019. In February, the Indian Air Force launched an airstrike into Pakistan following a suicide bombing in Kashmir. This then led to a crisis, dogfights, and missile threats. In August, the government in New Delhi surged security forces into Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir and revoked its special status, beginning months of detentions, restrictions, and claims about the beginning of a radically new politics in Kashmir. Moreover, senior politicians have articulated a new vision of how India seeks to advance its interests at home and abroad: Toughness, boldness, and skillful maneuvering amongst the world’s leading powers define this aspiration.
How should observers assess India’s new security order? And what implications, if any, does it have for the United States?
I identify three characteristics of the new order: an emphasis on risk-taking and assertiveness, the fusing of domestic and international politics, and the use of unrelenting spin to hold critics at bay. This approach carries potential benefits for the United States in bolstering its position in Asia. But it also brings a set of risks and challenges that demand clear-eyed analysis — and a willingness to debate how the United States engages with India moving forward.
Crisis and Crackdown
On Feb. 14, a Kashmiri suicide bomber killed 40 Indian paramilitary forces near the town of Pulwama in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir. Early on Feb. 26, the Indian Air Force used precision guided munitions to strike at a Jaish-e-Mohammed camp near Balakot in Pakistan. It’s uncertain what damage the strike achieved, ranging from Indian claims of success to claims that India entirely missed.
On the morning of Feb. 27, the Pakistan Air Force responded with a sortie across the Line of Control that divides the Indian- and Pakistani-administered parts of Jammu and Kashmir. In the ensuing combat, an Indian MiG-21 was shot down and an Indian Air Force pilot was captured by Pakistan. India asserts that it shot down a Pakistan Air Force F-16, while Pakistan has maintained it shot down another Indian jet — both claims remain, at best, shrouded in ambiguity. With an Indian pilot in Pakistani hands, the crisis looked as though it might escalate, and there are credible reports that India threatened missile strikes against Pakistan, amidst efforts at crisis management by third parties. Pakistan soon returned the captured pilot to India and the crisis abated.
The Indian Air Force strike was unprecedented. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and many Indian analysts have argued that the goal was to inflict pain on the Pakistan Army and to show that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons do not necessarily prevent Indian conventional operations. In turn, Pakistan has argued that the Indian strike missed at Balakot, and that the Pakistan Air Force’s retaliation on Feb. 27 should make India think twice about any repeat of such an operation. The public ambiguity of both sides’ claims makes a confident assessment of this crisis, and its interpretations by both governments, impossible. It is clear, however, that assumptions forged during the 2002–16 period about how both India and Pakistan will act in a crisis need to be revisited.
The second major event of 2019 occurred in the summer. On Aug. 4, Indian security forces in Jammu and Kashmir began widespread detentions of politicians, activists, civil society leaders, suspected militant sympathizers, and various others, while phone and internet access were cut. The next day, Home Minister Amit Shah introduced a bill (which was quickly passed) to revoke the special autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir, found in Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. In addition, the legislation bifurcated the state into a pair of Union Territories (with less power and autonomy than a state in the Indian political system). Modi argued that Article 370’s autonomy provisions fostered separatism and undermined development. With new elections, a break from Pakistani meddling, and the undermining of a corrupt ancien regime of local parties and political families, a more “normal” and pro-India Jammu and Kashmir could be born. Skeptics argued that meaningful autonomy had already been stripped away and that many of the justifications for the move were unpersuasive, especially given the methods used by the government.
A war of narratives broke out as detentions and other restrictions remained in place for months in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley. Reports of human rights abuses and arbitrary security force actions, as well as protests against the decision, began to trickle out, to be vehemently denied by the government. As of early December, the internet remains largely shut off in the Kashmir Valley and substantial numbers remain detained, including a number of prominent former politicians who had been openly pro-Delhi. The government’s desired endgame appears to involve moving to localized elections and spurring economic development, leading to Kashmiri acceptance of the new status quo.
Characteristics of the New Order
The Balakot airstrike and revocation of Kashmir’s special status are obviously different. Yet we can see some useful analytical similarities in Indian policy across them, especially when combined with a hugely important recent speech by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar that outlined what he called a new phase of Indian foreign policy under Modi. What are the characteristics of this new order?
First, Modi is willing to accept greater risk in using force. The period between 2002 — when India did not take military action against Pakistan following dramatic terrorist attacks in 2001–02 — and 2016 has deeply shaped the assumptions of many observers of South Asian security affairs. Though regular attacks occurred against Indian targets, New Delhi sought to avoid war and instead focused on isolating Pakistan while building up its own economic strength. The new dispensation in India views this as a failed strategy that did not impose necessary punishment on Pakistan.
Kashmir and Balakot are part of a broader effort to reshape India’s global and regional environment. Jaishankar’s November speech argued that India is pursuing a new phase of its foreign policy under Modi. In his framing, a rising India needs to settle its borders by creating a new status quo in Jammu and Kashmir that can no longer provide a pretext for Pakistani interference and pressure from the international community. The Balakot strike was aimed at preventing future Pakistani support for terrorist groups, in combination with international economic pressure from the Financial Action Task Force and cultivating traditional supporters of Pakistan like Saudi Arabia.
In order to play at the high table of global politics, India may need to pursue bold action. India’s history, Jaishankar suggests, shows that “a low-risk foreign policy is only likely to produce limited rewards.” He links this need for risk-taking to the multipolar order that is emerging with the end of America’s post-Cold War dominance. The combination of rising new powers and uncertainty about America’s global posture are creating a more fluid international environment. India must aggressively move to eliminate liabilities and impose costs on foes in order to seize the opportunities this environment presents.
Second, both the Balakot strike and the Kashmir decision have been deeply woven into electoral campaigning and domestic politics more broadly. Many view the Balakot strike as the turning point of India’s 2019 general election, which returned Modi to power in a surprising landslide. Though national security issues are often peripheral to Indian electoral politics, they took on a far more visible role in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) 2019 pitch to voters. The party framed Modi’s decision to launch airstrikes against Pakistan as a decisive move toward ending the menace of state-sponsored terrorism. Mobilizing national security, hard-line nationalism, and anti-Pakistan sentiment on the campaign trail worked for Modi and the BJP. The campaign rhetoric often went beyond what publicly available facts could support: as Tanvi Madan presciently predicted at the time, maintaining message discipline would prove challenging.
The BJP deployed a similar pitch in recent state elections in Haryana and Maharashtra. The outcomes were not as salutary. But at the national level, the BJP currently owns the national security issue, which can be deployed in a remarkable number of ways, from signaling Modi’s toughness to accusing opponents of siding with Pakistan to satisfying supporters who believe that India’s Hindu majority needs to proudly assert itself against the “pseudo-secularism” of the once-dominant Indian National Congress. The opposition has largely preferred to battle on the grounds of the economy.
The fusion of security policy with elections is double edged. Citizens should be involved in oversight and debate over such policies, and the involvement of the Indian public in international affairs is long overdue. Yet the combination is also susceptible to demagoguery and unintended consequences. The hyperbole around the nature and effects of the Balakot strike may create powerful pressures in the future to hit even harder after attacks in Kashmir or elsewhere, whether escalation would be wise or not.
Finally, a striking characteristic of the government and its supporters’ response to Balakot and especially Kashmir has been relentless spin and aggressive denunciations from India’s most senior political leadership, as well as allies in the media and analytical community. It is extremely difficult to discern truth in an unyielding barrage of claims.
For instance, during the Balakot crisis, Indian government sources denied that India made missile threats against Pakistan after the downing of the Indian pilot, calling them “fictitious and manufactured.” Yet a later Reuters report, followed by the Hindustan Times, made clear that this had in fact happened — and then Modi himself made an approving reference to it during the campaign, calling into question his own government’s previous denial. Shah, then the BJP party chief and now the extraordinarily powerful Home Minister, said that 250 people were killed in the Balakot strike, which has not been backed by compelling public evidence. Nirmala Sitharaman’s claim that India knew the identity of the allegedly downed Pakistani F-16 pilot similarly emerged and disappeared without sustained support. The Pakistani government has played a similar game, including allegations, without proof, of downing two Indian jets, while restricting journalists’ access to the Balakot compound.
The Kashmir move has also seen aggressive spin. As journalists first began to report on what was happening in Kashmir after the crackdown, they were met with vehement denials from the government that turned out to be inaccurate. Senior central and state government officials claimed that reporting was biased and inaccurate, often resorting to unconditional blanket denials even in the face of plausible evidence. Shah contended in late September that “the restrictions are in your mind, not in Jammu and Kashmir” while the Indian army chief, Bipin Rawat, argued that “those who feel that life has been affected are the ones whose survival depends on terrorism.” Yet, when pressed, the government also explicitly justified restrictions on security grounds.
Both Shah and Jaishankar proclaimed in mid-November that the Kashmir Valley had returned to normalcy. Within days of those claims, a fact-finding mission made up of Indian citizens claims it was barred from leaving Srinagar, and migrant laborers were killed in a terrorist attack. In early December, the lieutenant-governor of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir indicated that internet would be phased back in once things had become “more normal” — followed by Shah proclaiming that Kashmir was already “absolutely normal.” It is distinctly unclear what the right amount — and nature — of “normalcy” is intended for Kashmir.
The Indian government’s public relations strategy has extended to scathing critiques of skeptical journalists and politicians in the West. Ashok Malik, former press secretary to the President of India and now an additional secretary and policy adviser in the Ministry of External Affairs, dismissed foreign critics of the government’s Kashmir policy as “New York/London-based know-alls, fringe left activists, Pakistani state agents masquerading as aggrieved neutrals, and freelance self-determinists representing nothing but their bylines.” Indian Ambassador to the United States Harsh Vardhan Shringla has critiqued the American media’s “peddling of half-truths, untruths, factually incorrect information,” while Jaishankar has argued that American politicians are “misinformed by their media.” The Indian consul-general in New York was seen in a controversial video asking of the U.S. Congress “Why can’t they go somewhere else? You go to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, but you do not talk about that. Why do you want to come to us? They are not liking that we are asserting ourselves.” The government has made it known that it is watching the foreign media’s Kashmir coverage. The message is clear — New Delhi is playing hardball.
Implications for the United States
What does this new dynamic mean for the United States? Washington has reasons to want a more assertive and powerful India as a counterweight to Chinese influence. Even as the administration of President Donald Trump continues to clash on trade with India, it is continuing to expand military cooperation. An India that is serious about overcoming the negative trends in its military balance with China, establishes linkages to American allies and partners in Asia and beyond, pursues liberal democratic values, and continues high levels of economic growth would be a serious asset. This bundle of opportunities has driven Washington toward increasing Indian-American alignment since the early 2000s.
There is not a major strategic constituency opposed to good U.S.-India ties. There are, however, disagreements about the precise level of alignment that the United States and India should, or will, achieve. According to Ashley Tellis, “India has been a beneficiary of extraordinary American generosity for close to two decades now.” For some, including Tellis, India is in exchange already providing a valuable counterweight to China, and there is little more that the United States could reasonably expect — Delhi remains “Washington’s Best Hope in Asia.” Others argue that the United States is suffering from “India fatigue” after expending substantial effort without sufficient returns, and needs to adopt a more focused approach. Others worry about the potential for misaligned expectations.
One might think that India’s new order would bring clarity to this discussion. Yet in some ways it actually makes things more muddled. Strategically, it is far from clear that India’s actions in 2019 have brought major strategic gains. The Balakot strike, intended to be a bold and signature operation, quickly became bogged down in competing claims and overt politicization during the election campaign, while leading to suboptimal global headlines about the capture of an Indian pilot. In a future crisis, Modi’s fusing of domestic politics with security policy, especially Pakistan strategy, could drive dangerous escalation pressures that undermine India’s professed goal of moving beyond the regional rivalry. In the wake of the Kashmir move, there is little evidence that the population of the Kashmir Valley has had a major rethinking of its allegiance to Delhi (much evidence suggests rather the contrary), a huge and costly security presence remains, sporadic militant attacks persist, and economic development initiatives have not gone according to plan. A critical assessment argued that Delhi’s post-August 5 Kashmir policy “is proving to be a disaster.”
At a broader level, it remains to be seen if India has the power to pursue a strategy that Jaishankar argues combines “greater realism” with “hedging.” Nor is it clear what this approach means for the American desire for India to act as a counterweight to China. While there has clearly been major progress in security cooperation with the United States and its allies, especially in the maritime domain, the most important structural measures of power are military and economic. Abhijnan Rej has persuasively argued that the disjuncture between hawkish rhetoric and escalating expectations, on the one hand, and inadequate spending on and political attention to defense reform, on the other, is creating a “gap between intent and capability.” Rajesh Rajagopalan pointedly notes that Jaishankar’s strategic vision ignores India’s actual power. Rather than representing new thinking, Jaishankar’s formulation of the new order falls into the “obsessive but grossly mistaken belief” that India is a key player in an emerging multipolar order, rather than being locked into a nascent bipolar U.S.-China order. A set of analyses from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) paints an uninspiring picture of India’s military power relative to China. While identifying ways to improve the situation, they find that “the trend lines in the India-China military equation are broadly negative” and “China’s recent military modernization and reforms have, if anything, further widened the capability gap.”
The Indian economy — the central driver of its strategic rise — has entered an alarming slump, there are allegations that the government is manipulating economic data, and some fear that India is entering the so-called “middle income trap.” This is occurring in the context of what Milan Vaishnav calls “the credibility crisis afflicting India’s core institutions.” These trends may reverse. But trading on future economic growth in exchange for current strategic benefits is an uncertain game.
A second cluster of challenges arise from the BJP’s domestic political project, which is central to India’s new security order. These are irrelevant to the Trump administration, which has neither interest nor credibility in human rights or liberalism, at home or abroad. Nevertheless, a pillar of American support for India has been based on shared values, explicitly including “secular democracy.” Many worry that India is moving in the direction of — or has arrived at — illiberal democracy. Ashutosh Varshney identifies a worrisome “contradiction between electoral resilience and liberal deficits,” while Gideon Rachman decries “India’s slide into illiberalism.” Major Indian newspapers have raised serious concerns, for instance, over the recently passed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which explicitly favors non-Muslim refugees, calling it “unequal, unsecular,” “a poisonous bill,” and “flawed and dangerous.” The aftermath of the bill’s passing has seen protests (and, in some cases, violence) on university campuses across India, as well as in the Northeast and West Bengal. Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, and even the U.S. State Department have raised concerns about India’s Kashmir policy. Voices of discontent have begun to emerge in the U.S. Congress. Government supporters are pleased that Modi’s second term is “systematically ticking off the more ‘ideological’—and, therefore, more contentious — facets of the BJP’s famed distinctiveness,” but this agenda also creates international challenges.
India is also increasingly acting within the American political system. In an enthusiastic joint rally in Houston — “Howdy Modi” — Narendra Modi openly embraced Trump, heralding the president’s “love for every American.” More murkily, a recent investigation uncovered a disinformation network targeting the United States and other Western countries that is strikingly supportive of Indian government positions. After Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Steve Watkins introduced a House resolution on Kashmir in early December, in what may or may not have been a coincidence, a curiously similar set of articles directly attacking them appeared in the Indian media. The British government recently conveyed concern over the BJP appearing to pick sides in the United Kingdom’s election.
Dealing with the New India
The “New India” of Modi, Shah, and Jaishankar is unabashed in its embrace of power politics and contemptuous of its critics. America will need an equally clear-eyed response. There is a reasonable strategic logic behind the U.S.-India relationship, but it increasingly involves complications that cannot be ignored.
Future analyses of U.S. strategy toward India need to explicitly answer a set of important, and difficult, questions.
At the most basic level, should human rights and liberalism matter to U.S. policy toward India? Views of broader Asia strategy may drive this answer. To those who see India as essential to a balancing coalition against China, the answer is likely to be no. For an Asia strategy that involves cultivating Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines, domestic illiberalism is no disqualification in pursuit of emerging great-power competition. For those who see India as helpful but not essential, or who are not as concerned about the rise of China, the answer may be quite different. In this view, India is more threatened by China than is the secure, distant United States, and so America has considerable room to maneuver. For either position, it is essential to be explicit about the trade-offs that may be involved.
If liberalism and human rights do matter, what would be the indicators of a break in “shared values”? If one is alarmed by trends in Indian politics, should the United States offer anything beyond polite diplomatic rhetoric in response? History suggests that there are serious limits to pushing India (for instance, threats to sanction Amit Shah seem likely to generate backlash) — but many in the United States are skeptical of embracing the BJP’s project, which cannot be cleanly disentangled from its most high-profile security policies. If current trends in Indian politics continue, this tension will increasingly confront those who see the Modi government as part of a transnational wave of illiberalism. A similarly delicate question is what kinds of Indian government activities within American politics should be viewed as appropriate, and which would cross the line into an open electoral intervention. Lobbying and diaspora mobilization are standard practice (including by Pakistan), but coordinated campaigns of leaks aimed at members of Congress or de facto endorsement of candidates would likely be seen as distinctly less so.
If the bipartisan political values pillar of the U.S.-India relationship weakens, it may focus American attention on bluntly transactional realpolitik and economic considerations even beyond the Trump administration. At this strategic level, the key question is whether and how to pursue conditionality around measurable outputs. What precisely should the United States expect from India in exchange for American technology, arms, market access, favorable immigration policy, and relief from sanctions related to purchases of Russian weaponry? Does the policy of “strategic altruism” that guided the Bush and Obama administrations remain relevant, or will Washington need a different approach that simultaneously avoids Trump’s incoherent blend of trade conflict and security cooperation? Those skeptical of India’s political direction may have a higher bar for Indian strategic convergence than those supportive of the Modi government. These dynamics will intersect with an Indian political arena in which deep historical suspicion of the United States can be found on both the left and right, adding further volatility.
American analysts, scholars, and policymakers will offer a wide, and likely conflicting, range of answers to each of these questions. The debate may end up reaffirming the status quo. Regardless, a new phase of Indian foreign policy requires an equal willingness to revisit American strategy.
Paul Staniland is Associate Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Committee on International Relations (CIR) at the University of Chicago. He is the author of the award-winning book Networks of Rebellion: Explaining Insurgent Cohesion and Collapse (Cornell 2014). He is currently finishing a book manuscript on government-armed group interactions in South Asia, and beginning a project on the domestic politics of international relations in the region.