Universally, militaries are conservative-realist entities. India’s is no different. Therefore, though an apolitical one, it is probably not unhappy with the election of a conservative government to power in Delhi. Whereas other governments have been constrained by their parliamentary strength and have used the military sparingly, this government does not need to look over its shoulder. In fact, it is already delivering on several of the military’s long standing demands. Mr. Modi’s Diwali foray to Siachen suggests there is more to the Modi-military relationship than mere photo opportunities. What might this be?
Commentators, citing the recent disruption of the decade long ceasefire on the Line of Control (LOC), have it that India has changed its policy from passivity to greater aggressiveness. It is also being prickly on the China front, so much so that analysts have advised greater caution. While the army has been given a ‘free hand’ in one report on the LOC owing in the defence minister’s words to India having greater ‘conventional strength’, on the China front, since India has a lot of catching up to do, India is probably more restrained, even if it is projecting a tougher stance.
Assuming Indian strategy is, in the words of its National Security Adviser, ‘effective deterrence’, then India would have strengthened its fences early and then settled down to concentrating on its economic development. As a grand strategy, this is unexceptionable, even if the initial phase could well have been different with Mr. Modi following up on the promise of the meeting with Mr. Sharif in Rashtrapati Bhawan forecourt.
Mr. Modi rightly reasoned that Mr. Sharif was not the best interlocutor in Pakistan and that he could not deliver on what the only other credible interlocutor in Pakistan, its army, can possibly settle for. This best explains India’s strategic line taken. It has essentially told Pakistan off, even if has not ‘shut up’ that army as Mr. Modi imagines. Mr. Modi’s going to Siachen only strengthens this message, that even the supposed low hanging fruit, a solution to Siachen, is out of reach. By aggression on the LOC, Mr. Modi and his hard-line security adviser, Mr. Dovel, are messaging that if Pakistan does not accept the new status quo, then India can and will inflict ‘pain’ for ‘adventurism’ in the words of its defence minister.
Messaging thus can only be based on prior strategic calculation that the Pakistan army would play along. So while Pakistan’s army may use its former maverick chief, Musharraf, to plug the hardline for its part and have its spokesperson mimic India’s warning with his own on Indian ‘misadventure’, as a calculating strategic player, it will see the strategic imbalance and lay off India. In any case, it is somewhat busy warding off its own Jihadis. India can aggravate its western front at will through its higher profile in Afghanistan and proximity with the new government in Kabul. Will the Pakistan army see things this way?
India is no doubt aware that Pakistan’s army has proven irrational before, be it in 1971, when it lost half the country; and more recently, at Kargil. Therefore, if India is going in for an aggressive strategy, it is aware that Pakistan army may not get the message of deterrence and there could well be conflict.
This can also be taken as a form of deterrence in that it is India that is playing irrational. It is seemingly in the game of ‘chicken’ in which it has got into the car and stepping on the accelerator, has thrown away the steering. This way Pakistan will have to veer away lest it be crushed by the Indian juggernaut. This is indeed deterrence strategy of sorts.
Even if it does not work, India has readied itself over the past decade with its switch over and its practice of the ‘cold start’ doctrine. India has therefore catered for the worst case. While most would cry ‘watch out for the nukes’, India is perhaps banking on these not coming into the equation in a brief, limited war, irrespective of the spent-force, General Musharraf’s vainglorious threats.
While to most war spells economic downslide, to India’s decision makers it may well stimulate the economy. As it is, India is privileging the defence sector. It has opened it up to foreign investment. It is set to stay at the top of the arms importers table for the remainder of the decade. The US has displaced Russia as its largest supplier. More widely, the government is itself fronting for big corporations interested in the defence sector. The ‘make in India’ slogan can be defence sector led.
Therefore, the only restraint on war, the notion that it would be bad for the economy, is not one that the government may find overly persuasive. In fact, the political gains from a short, sharp war in which Pakistan is taught a lesson or two may be worth the risk. Externally, it may displace Pakistani military from the decision apex in Pakistan, enabling finally the ascendance of the peace lobby there. Internally, a victory would prove as good for the BJP as it was for Indira Gandhi.
Therefore, the Indian strategy is a win-win one—for itself. In case Pakistan takes the hint, then India can proceed with its economic trajectory unmolested. In case Pakistan does not play ball, then India can use the economic stimulus of a brief bout of hostilities to continue, after a short pause, down its economic trajectory.
As with any strategy, there is an element of risk. However, are assumptions such as of Pakistani rationality; on the economic fallout of war; and unlikelihood of a war going nuclear, one too many? Can it be that the conservative-realists, new to power and its exercise, in presenting themselves as different from their predecessors, are stretching tad too far? Or are there military-societal explanations for the military-Modi chemistry on display that strategic analysts cannot quite capture? Answers will emerge, and hopefully not through a mushroom cloud.