Narendra Modi’s rise to power primarily on an economic development mandate has provided him with little opportunity to articulate a cohesive foreign policy for India. However, the test for Modi as a resolute leader and diplomat has come early in his tenure.

At least twenty civilians have been killed in Kashmir in the latest round of firings between India and Pakistan, with casualties occurring on both sides of the border. As has happened several times before, each side has accused the other of unprovoked firing along the disputed border region and escalating the dispute. It is not clear as to what precipitated the exchange of fire. However, this by no means is an isolated incident. Kashmiris witnessed a series of incidents including the exchange of fire and border infiltrations in January 2013. These were followed by further episodes of tensions along the border in February, June, July, August, September and October 2013. In August 2014, shortly after Narendra Modi was elected as India’s Prime Minister, several Indians and Pakistanis were killed in the latest round of violence at the disputed border. Each side has accused the other of violating the ceasefire that was agreed to in 2004.

A few days before the August 2014 incident, Prime Minister Modi argued that Pakistan had lost the strength to fight a conventional war with India, and was resorting to a proxy war by training and smuggling terrorists into the Indian territory. In response to the incident, high-level diplomatic talks between the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers were cancelled. The official reason for the cancellation of the talks by India was Pakistan’s interference in its internal affairs by convening a meeting with Kashmiri separatist groups ahead of the talks. Previous Indian governments under the Congress leadership have been criticized for appearing weak and failing to deliver a decisive response to Pakistani aggression. With a Hindu nationalist background and a no-nonsense personality, Indians are relying upon Modi to deploy India’s military might to combat cross border terrorism. While India’s desire to be able and willing to defend its territory and borders is perfectly understandable, adopting an aggressive stance against Pakistan may prove to be a dangerous strategy for India.

What should be India’s strategy toward Pakistani aggression?

With most analysis in the news media coming from policy pundits possessing little background in political science and international relations research, it has been frequently suggested that the Indian government should adopt a more hard-line approach toward Pakistan’s repeated border infiltrations and state sponsored terrorism aimed at disrupting the social fabric in India. On the face of it, this sounds like a sensible and reasonable approach; you must deter any potential aggression by resolutely repressing current aggressions. This policy approach assumes that the Pakistani government stands to lose (face, resources, its mandate for governance etc.) if India delivers a heavy-handed blow to their repeated excursions into Indian territory in the disputed region of Kashmir. However, the following international relations theories help explain why this may be a dangerous strategy for India to pursue.

The democratic peace theory

In a nutshell, the democratic peace theory argues that democratic countries are unlikely (or less likely) to go to war with each other. Democratic states settle disputes by negotiating with each other, not by shooting at each other. Realists continue to remain skeptical and question the accuracy of this research paradigm. However, offshoots of this theory help explain why autocratic leaders are unresponsive to their populations’ preferences vis-à-vis conflict with another state. In all regimes, it is the leaders who decide to initiate conflict but it is the subjects who pay the costs of conflict. In a democratic country, citizens are less likely to support a leader’s appetite for international war because they will directly bear the costs of conflict, which may include higher taxes, risking lives by serving in the military, an unstable economy etc. Because democratic leaders must respond to their electorates or risk losing reelection, they are less likely to initiate international conflicts without the backing of their electorates.

Contrary to this, in autocratic regimes, leaders can reap the benefits of conflict without directly paying the costs of conflict. If India adopts a more hard-line approach toward Pakistan, then we should hardly expect Pakistan’s government to be deterred. This is because the elites in the Pakistani regime are not directly paying the costs of conflict either economically on in terms of sacrificing lives. On the other hand, the following theory helps explain why belligerence by India may help enhance the popularity of the Pakistani government.

Diversionary theory of war

Whenever a country is attacked by an external force or faces a national security crisis, the leader’s popularity receives a boost. National crises, such as an invasion or a terrorist attack, help rally the subjects behind the leader and increase feelings of nationalism within the public that are projected onto the leader. The terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda on 9/11 helped boost President George W. Bush’s popularity to almost 90%, which is an all time high for an American President. Because leaders are aware of this phenomenon, during times of low popularity (due to domestic problems or personal scandals etc.), they may seek to improve their popularity ratings by artificially creating a crisis or initiating a foreign conflict that will divert the public’s attention away from the leader’s poor performance at home and towards the international problem. International Relations scholars refer to this as the diversionary theory of war. One of the most prominent examples of a leader using a diversionary tactic is that of Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher starting a war against Argentina, over the tiny and sparsely inhabited Falkland Islands off the coast of Argentina. Thatcher was able to ride the victory of the conflict all the way to the polls, by calling for early reelections and winning a second term as Prime Minister in 1982.

The current Pakistani regime, while no longer a military dictatorship like under General Pervez Musharraf’s regime, can be referred to as an illiberal or hybrid regime. These regimes emulate the democratic process on paper, but in reality severely curtail civic liberties and freedoms of their citizens. While these regimes may be attempting to transfer from authoritarian to democratic status, they are much more likely to be violent in this state of transition. Ever since coming to power, the latest Pakistani regime has been mired in allegations on ineffectiveness, corruption and poor governance. It would be in the regime’s best interest to continue to play the ‘Kashmir card’ to rally the public support for the government. Scholars have argued that it is not in the Pakistani government’s best interest to negotiate a permanent and peaceful resolution to the border dispute with India. This can only change when the interests of Pakistan’s governments align with that of the Pakistani people.

To be sure most, if not all, Indian citizens are welcoming Modi’s assertive foreign policy stance against Pakistan; they have witnessed more than their fair share of turbulence and chaos due to the frequent and unpredictable violence at the border, usually started as a result of Pakistan’s proxy army i.e. terrorists loosely affiliated with the Pakistani army. It is widely accepted in India that a majority of these terrorists receive training, arms and other resources from the Pakistani establishment. Their motive seems to be to ensure continued volatility in the region of Kashmir by engaging in various terrorist tactics such as bombings etc. Nevertheless, while India should do all it can to secure its border and defend itself, adopting a more aggressive stance against Pakistan will prove to be a futile strategy for reasons explained above.

History suggests that India has followed through on its warnings by decisively defeating Pakistan every single time the two countries have fought each other. However, the last international conflict between the two countries was in Kargil (part of Kashmir) in 1999 and remained a limited war. This was before both countries successfully tested and secured nuclear weapons. Today, the possibility of an all out conventional war between the two states remains (thankfully) low because of the prospect of either side deploying nuclear weapons. While nuclear deterrence has prevented conventional war, it is also a potent signal to the Pakistani regime that India will not actually respond to Pakistani cross border infiltrations and violence by declaring war against Pakistan, thus strengthening their resolve to continue to use this deplorable albeit winning strategy against India. International relations scholarship has also argued that while India has a defensive nuclear posture, Pakistan has an offensive nuclear posture, which means that India cannot trust that Pakistan will not deploy limited nuclear weapons against India if India chooses to attack Pakistan.

Ironically, India’s democratic status and defensive nuclear posture along with a history of nonaggression against neighboring states are responsible for why it is losing the battle on Kashmir. The solution then is not to adopt a more aggressive stance against the Pakistani regime but to offer a series of carrots that may pave the way for the normalization of relations in the long term. This will require India to improve trade relations with Pakistan. Trade between the two countries is less than 1% of their total GDPs as well as a tiny fraction of their total global trade, which is rather surprising for two countries who share so much in common historically, culturally and socially. It is widely argued that trade prevents conflict between states. Although the causes remain disputed, data suggests that states that are economically interdependent on each other (primarily through trade) are less likely to be involved in conflicts against each other. Modi, whose first love seems to be economic development and growth, should be well-versed in the argument that trade impedes conflict. India’s success in creating peace with Pakistan depends on its ability to engage Pakistani economically, not superficially, but in a deep and lasting way.