Superficially, it would appear that Kashmir is at the ‘core’ of the problem between the two states, India and Pakistan. Other candidate areas of lesser significance figure in the basket of issues tackled earlier by the ‘composite dialogue’ in the peace process between the two states. That the process shows signs of resumption after a few false starts since Mumbai 26/11 is heartening. Making headway would be dependent on recognizing the real problem. This article argues that the problem lies in the ambitions of the two states. While India is in search of prestige, Pakistan seeks equalizing power.

India sees itself as a regional power and on route to great power status. It has the second largest population, making it the largest democracy. Its fast growing economy is set to overtake the middle powers over the decade. A recently released report of one of India’s think tanks places it fifth in terms of power. It was a leading power earlier in the NAM and is now one in the G20. Its position is consequential for climate change negotiations, trade regimes and on non-proliferation. Its current tenure in the UNSC is being taken as a precursor to its gaining a seat at the high table as a permanent member. These cumulatively give it an understandable self-image as the leading regional power.

All its neighbors have acquiesced in this, but not Pakistan. Since Pakistan has a praetorian military, it determines Pakistan’s India policy. The military, as is the wont of militaries elsewhere, sees the world through a realist lens. It privileges power, power play, and balance of power. This has been accentuated by two factors. The first is the association over the years with the US and, more narrowly, with its military. Second is the army’s experience of 1971, in which India was able to leverage its power even as the US and China did not help Pakistan out. Pakistan therefore has set about to even the power equation seen as in India’s favor by both external and internal balancing.

The result is a contest of power between the two states. In wake of 1971, India was the reigning power in South Asia. It departed from the Nehruvian world view in favor of the new Indira doctrine of regional ascendance. It went in for the nuclear explosion and started a military modernization program involving mechanization of its military. The aim was conventional deterrence through counter offensives in case of Pakistani attempts to wrest Kashmir by force, as was attempted by that state in 1965. Pakistan for its part was by the end of the seventies, back under a military regime and at the center of the Cold War as a ‘frontline state’. This enabled it to checkmate India’s moves on the conventional plane by going nuclear covertly and by launch of proxy war first in Punjab and then in Kashmir in the eighties.

Through the nineties, both states were constrained by economic circumstances. India, when faced Pakistani irredentist pressure in Kashmir, was unable to respond conventionally. The recessed nuclear deterrence in place and a turn to economic liberalization made India’s military option recede. Nuclearization by both states in quick succession in May 1998 transformed the strategic scene. India’s Lahore peace initiative was rendered still-born by Pakistan in its launch of the Kargil intrusion. The war was soon followed by the Kandahar hijack at the end of the year, and the terror attack on India’s parliament a year later. Even while India edged closer to the US through the Talbott-Jaswant talks, 9/11 brought Pakistan back into the reckoning as the central actor in the region for the US. This has enabled Pakistan to rely on both the US and its perennial friend, China, to offset India’s growing economic and military power.

India has attempted to make its power count by going in for an offensive conventional doctrine, colloquially dubbed ‘Cold Start’. This recreated the conventional space to hit back at Pakistan for its proxy war provocations while remaining within the nuclear threshold. Pakistan has responded by increasing its nuclear capability to ‘edge’ past India’s by the end of the decade. Cognizant of India’s possible military reaction, it has taken care not to repeat 26/11. It has lent itself as a site for Chinese containment of India in the larger Sino-Indian power play on the wider chess board of Asia. India for its part has inclined towards the US thereby affording the superpower an option for offsetting the challenge posed by China at the global level.

The aim of this brief survey of realpolitik was to point out that with increasing Indian power over the future and declining power of an internally-beset Pakistan, the future may end up quite like the past.

Currently, in India’s prescription, a move towards democracy in Pakistan would result in democratic peace breaking out. India has fitfully attempted to foster this by reaching out to Pakistan intermittently over the years in the hope that this would foster a democratic peace constituency and restrict the political space of the Army and anti-India forces. The Pakistani Army has successfully stymied these measures to preserve its institutional interests and for using the Indian ‘Other’ for purposes of national cohesion, both vertically and horizontally.

India cannot indefinitely rely on Pakistan reforming itself. The expectation that India can ‘manage’ Pakistan in the interim may, in the event of a militarized and nuclearized future crisis, end up disrupting India’s economic growth. India must therefore work towards an outcome getting Pakistan on the bandwagon. The strategy must be to dilute military power as an ingredient of prestige. This implies shifting the definition of prestige in favor of other prestige-imparting factors, such as improved social indicators.

This is unlikely to happen in a polity with a center-right center of gravity. Additionally, there is a nationalism informed by ‘cultural nationalism’. There are also institutional and sectional actors advantaged by India’s ascending military graph. The ‘solution’ in terms of redefining India’s ambitions appears a non-starter.

It seems that crisis must first give way to conflict before the nuclear portents compel a brighter future.