The revolution in Tunisia, with ripple effects in Egypt, Yemen and Lebanon, has placed authoritarian regimes across the Muslim world on notice. On the face of it, Pakistan, having a democracy, albeit with a guardian military, does not qualify as the next domino. Yet, in light of the recent assassination of the Governor of Punjab and the aftermath revealing an elite-mass disconnect, an Islamist take over has moved from an academic possibility to a real probability. Though this dénouement may not be revolutionary, portents of a slow burn have been around for as long as Pakistan has been reckoned as a failing state.

Given that this dubious status has been Pakistan’s for long, it could imply one of two things: either the robustness of the Pakistani state, or a tenuousness requiring but another push. The consensus is in favor of the former, since Pakistan has a cohesive military; a largely stable core province, Punjab; supportive friends and allies, such as the US and China, which would not allow it to go under; secular democratic parties of sufficient strength; and a popular majority of moderates.

Having acknowledged this at the outset, this article discusses possible reactions to Pakistan in case of its hypothetical ‘descent into chaos’. This scenario has figured in strategic debates, but not the reaction to it. Expanding instability signified by bomb blasts in settled areas and urban centers, ethnic tensions in Karachi and the implications in terms of radicalization of security forces of the governor’s bodyguard turning out an assassin. The discussion has thrown up innovative ideas such as Ralph Peter’s solution dealing with the wider AfPak region.

Two options present themselves for India: ‘Proactive’ and ‘Lay off’.

The ‘proactive option’ envisages assertive support of the failing regime. The impulse behind this would be to preserve Pakistani ‘crown jewels’, its nuclear arsenal, from falling into ‘wrong hands’, as much as to prevent the expansion of ungoverned spaces beyond the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Active demonstration of support in terms of possible deployment of military forces to assist secular-rational forces may help deter further unrest and retrieve lost ground. This is an option the US may exercise, compelled by its existing commitments and presence in AfPak and the stakes it has in preventing an anti-Western regime coming to power.

In case of US exercise of proactive insertion, India, in its role as a ‘strategic partner’, may be required to lend a hand. This perhaps explains some of the military exercises that India has had with the US, numbering over two score; in particular of Special Forces. The recent acquisition of US transport aircraft for out of area operations indicates the thrust of the military engagement. Interoperability having been achieved to an extent, India may be called upon to fulfill the role played in exercises so far. India would be faced with a choice of intervention along with the US, actively dissuading it, or standing by inert or non-military engagement in keeping with its regional weight.

The latter implies political accommodation in terms of supporting the challenged regime so as to strengthen its hand. This would include at a minimum reassurance on not taking advantage of the Pakistani predicament and at a maximum agreeing to concessions on outstanding issues, such as Kashmir, saleable in Pakistan. That India is amenable to go halfway has been the declared Indian position. The revelations by Pakistan’s former foreign minister, Kasuri, at the lecture at Sapru House, indicate the extent India is prepared to move on Kashmir. This would help defuse the extremist argument aimed at delegitimizing the government. At a stretch, India may take part in operations alongside the US and the supported regime, as depicted in the futuristic climax in the book by India’s former army chief, ‘Paddy’ Padmanabhan, The Writing on the Wall: India Checkmates America 2017.

What might be the outcome? Extremist energy would in the short term be energized by nationalism. The side being supported would suffer a legitimacy deficit initially in its association with a foreign power. The fight would be considerably bloody since the intervening force would exert to prevail; exit not being an option. Over the long term, the asymmetric counter will amount to a high intensity insurgency, spawning both Al Qaeda franchisees and sectarian factions. The significance of the nuclear weapons would heighten and guarantee of securing against the proverbial ‘loose nuke’ would not be there. The threat to India would be to the extent of its participation and the nuclear threat higher because of proximity. The final outcome would not be a ‘sure thing’ either as the failed support to White Russians testifies.

This uncertainty brings to fore the ‘lay off’ option. The argument is that nuclear weapons in ‘known’ ‘wrong hands’ are better than in ‘unknown’ ‘wrong hands’. Nuclear weapons control by the state, even if an Islamist one and adversarial, is better, since deterrence could work. Loose nukes with non-state actors would make for a more potent threat, not only to the US, against whom they would be primarily directed, but also to India. This logic makes the ‘lay off’ option plausible.

Revolutions are not unknown in history. Revolutionary regimes are not necessarily expansive. Expansion can also be seen as a defensive consequence against counter revolutionary pressures. This is true of the Iranian case, for instance. The war waged by Iraq had fatal long term consequences for itself. By analogy, if there is a fight for political control in Pakistan, there is no necessity for India to be party to it physically.

While India may prefer democratic forces and may assist these, it need not be to the extent of military intervention. As the civil war progresses, India would need to hedge its position so that it can continue engaging with the state despite the complexion of its regime. Engagement would help socialize the regime. This is seemingly impossible given the opprobrium Islamism has received. However, discounting for rhetoric surrounding the ‘global war on terror’ is necessary since Islamism has had an exaggerated profile. Seeing it in perspective would help bring balance and rationality into the reckoning.

The analysis here suggests that a choice is available and must be exercised rationally. The necessity for pointing this out owes to uncritical and emotional commentary in favor of a proactive and assertive Indian involvement against fundamentalist forces. The argument here to the contrary is that the issue is internal to Pakistani polity and India would do well to allow the contradictions in that society to play out.  India must favor a democratic outcome, undaunted by the ideological color.