The Indian Army’s brief foray into Myanmar last week to hunt militants set alarm bells ringing in neighbouring Pakistan, Delhi’s arch-rival whom it blames for stoking a rebellion in the disputed region of Kashmir. By suggesting that the Myanmar incident could set a precedent for more cross-border raids—including one into Pakistan-controlled Kashmir—an NDA minister took the row one step further.
As if waiting for a cue, Pakistan’s leadership has reacted with suppressed fury. Pakistani leaders have threatened swift retaliation should India ever try similar manoeuvres along its western border. Pakistan’s defence minister, Khawaja Asif, warned about the possibility of a nuclear war if India launches a similar incursion into Pakistan.
The Pakistani statements—which include provocative reminders that India is not the only subcontinent power with nuclear arms—are once again exposing the deep-rooted suspicions and lingering potential for conflict between the long-standing rivals despite groundbreaking outreach to ease tension.
Bellicose language is nothing new between the nuclear-armed neighbours, but Pakistanis say recent events have further hurt relations, which is already strained since Narendra Modi came to power and announced a new doctrine of zero-tolerance against Pakistan sponsored terror.
The current uneasiness underscores the challenges for leaders on both sides seeking to overcome the rifts and shift to shared issues, such as regional economic cooperation, water resources and the rise of militant factions.
Now, the downturn in relations includes open speculation in Pakistan about the possibility of a cross-border strike by India. Such worries—even though apparently remote—carry added resonance between countries that have troops facing each other in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region.
The Modi government has, from the very beginning, followed a policy of ‘disproportionate response’ to border provocations. Indian troops have been given greater operational autonomy to be aggressive in responding to ceasefire violations by Pakistan. The Indian military has been given the much-needed operational space to carve out a response which was swift, sharp and effective, underlining the costs of Pakistan’s dangerous escalatory tactics with massive targeted attacks on Pakistani Ranger posts along the border.
What has worked on the border with Myanmar will clearly not work on the western borders against jihadi groups and that contextualisation has been part of the Indian government’s response. Also, cooperation with like-minded states such as Myanmar and Bangladesh will be crucial to deny terror group safe havens across the borders.
The government of Myanmar reportedly approved the Indian plan to send in special forces to attack insurgent camps into its territory. To justify its attack, New Delhi invoked the May 2014 border agreement with Myanmar which provides for a framework for security cooperation and intelligence exchange between the two states.
Despite this, a narrative has emerged in the country which holds that while the operation was well planned, the political communication was unnecessary and immature. Sections of the media, former diplomats, and armchair strategists have converged in suggesting that the Modi government messed up a fine operation by talking about it.
Signalling intent and demonstrating capabilities are the keys in establishing and strengthening deterrence in interstate relations.
There is a reason why all major powers make a big deal when they resort to the use of their military instruments of hard power. This is the norm in mature democracies. After all, the message is not simply for the domestic audience. It is also there to reassure allies and to deter adversaries.During the last decade of the UPA rule, an impression had gained ground that India had turned into a soft state. India’s friends and enemies had stopped taking India seriously as a military power.
The Modi government is fast changing this perception. A nation’s vital interests, in the ultimate analysis, can only be preserved and enhanced if the nation has sufficient power capabilities at its disposal. It must not only possess such capabilities but also demonstrate its willingness to use them.
The Modi government has sent a clear signal to its adversaries—both state and non-state—that hostilities against India will not go on without a robust response. The Myanmar operation was a step towards restoring India’s credibility. But it is a long road ahead and the effectiveness of this new “Modi-Doval” doctrine, as it has been termed in the media, will be known only over the long-term.
Regardless of the level of their economy, diplomacy between neighbouring countries is a high cost enterprise that makes a cost-benefit analysis by stakeholder necessary. The discourse between New Delhi and Islamabad is one of the most fragile and tension ridden diplomatic relationships in the world.
India’s current strategy should be to keep Pakistan embroiled in such a way that its economy is adversely affected and it is unable to sustain the strategic parity that has existed over the years. It should draw Pakistan into an arms race at a time when its economy is entering a stabilisation phase and is poised to move into the growth paradigm. It should force Pakistan to spend more on defence and making waging war against India uneconomic and counter-productive.
Menon is a former additional secy,Cabinet Secretariat