Looking to reinvigorate support at home, Modi could pick a fight with his country’s traditional enemy.
Fahd HumayunJune 29, 2020, 3:55 PM
An Indian Border Security Force soldier carries a rocket launcher as he takes up position at an outpost along the India-Pakistan border in Ranbir Singh Pora, southwest of Jammu, on Oct. 2, 2016. Tauseef Mustafa/AFP/Getty Images
The worst border skirmish between India and China in the Himalayas in decades has abated for now, but the potential for crisis still looms large over a nuclear-armed South Asia. Last week, India announced it was formally downgrading relations with its other adversary and neighbor, Pakistan, by reducing the staff at its High Commission by 50 percent. The last time India asked for a similar reduction of embassy staff was in 2001, following an attack on the Indian Parliament. Bilateral ties between the two states have been shunted since New Delhi unilaterally revoked the special status of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir on Aug. 5, 2019, and intensified a heavy-handed crackdown in the valley.
So what exactly does the dust-up with China have to do with Pakistan’s relationship with India? In short, there are five reasons why this month’s Himalayan standoff increases the likelihood of a fresh India-Pakistan crisis.
First: India’s muted response to China in the aftermath of the Galwan Valley skirmish has raised difficult logistical questions and reputational concerns about New Delhi’s much-touted role as counterweight to China in the Indo-Pacific. Although New Delhi adopted a position of nonalignment for much of the Cold War, its potential as a regional diplomatic and military bulwark against a rising China took on new significance after U.S. President George W. Bush sought to enlist it as a strategic partner and approved the sale of U.S. nuclear technology to the country. More recently, New Delhi and Washington announced an expanded defense partnership, including $3 billion in arms sales.
Yet hostile encounters with China in both 2017 and again this year have underscored for Indian policymakers the need to get along with Beijing if only to sustain a mutually feasible cohabitation; informal summits such as those in 2018 and 2019 were driven by this strategic necessity. In the aftermath of the most recent crisis, corps commander-level talks and diplomatic negotiations between Beijing and New Delhi mean India is likely to prioritize a minimum-working engagement with China over an unambiguous geopolitical rivalry that would come with fully partnering with the United States. Meanwhile, the political compulsion to demonstrate military capability—especially in the face of a conventional balance of forces that has shifted in China’s favor—may impel India to look elsewhere to offset suggestions of strategic impotency. If military capabilities drive policy choices, then the theater with Pakistan is a suitable foil for perceived Indian weaknesses compared to China.
Second, since coming to power in 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has demonstrated both a willingness and a capability to deliver on nationalistic pledges at home, especially when his government’s ability to deliver on the economic front has hit snags. Although India has seen its GDP growth fall to its lowest rate in the last 11 years, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has sought to consolidate its political base by doubling down on its nationalistic pledges—from revoking the special status for Jammu and Kashmir (disputed between India and Pakistan since 1947) to building a Hindu temple to the god Ram on a disputed holy site where the Babri Masjid once stood.
Research shows that leaders looking to divert attention tend to target traditional enemies and enduring rivals (as conflict against such persistent adversaries is most likely to promote in-group solidarity), and diversionary conflicts are particularly likely to take the form of territorial disputes. Since the controversial measures in Kashmir last year, India’s politicians have systematically upped the bilateral ante with Pakistan by declaring intent to “secure” the Pakistani administrative areas of Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. Earlier this year, India’s new Army chief said the Indian Army was “ready to seize control” of Pakistan-administered Kashmir if directed by the Indian government; the same month, Modi said India needed seven to 10 days to defeat Pakistan in war. Two weeks ago, India’s defense minister reiterated that taking Pakistani Kashmir was now a “stated goal of India’s Parliament.”
Ordinarily, such statements might be put down to cheap talk—except, in this case, the BJP’s own track record of follow-through suggests these threats should be taken seriously. Operationally, the Indian Army has begun to set up artillery strikes deep into Kashmiri villages to launch long-distance fire into Pakistan-administered territory. In May, after months of deliberation, the India Meteorological Department began to list several areas on the Pakistani side of the border, in its own internal weather reports—an unprecedented development.
Third, while tempers and temperatures arguably cool on the Sino-Indian front, memories of a short but tense air duel between India and Pakistan last February are still fresh in both Islamabad and New Delhi. While Pakistan shot down an aging, Soviet-era Indian MiG-21 Bison and captured and returned an Indian pilot in the dogfight, India claimed it had downed a Pakistani F-16. The air duel over Kashmir quickly escalated into a war of narratives: Pakistan rejected India’s allegations and asserted it had lost no jets.
In the days after the dogfight, the New York Times ran a story about the implications of India losing a plane to a country whose military was half the size and received a quarter of the funding. India’s right-wing Shiv Sena has since called for more “surgical strikes” on Pakistan to consolidate the BJP’s grip on Kashmir. Furthermore, when Indian papers ran headlines of India having killed “300-400 terrorists” in an airstrike on Balakot last February, Pakistan countered that the targets had been “little more than rocks and trees.” Since last year, India’s opposition too has on various occasion taken swipes at Modi for the Balakot episode; pollsters meanwhile have disputed the extent to which the Balakot strikes actually buoyed the BJP in its 2019 electoral victory. The “decider’s dilemma” for Modi is that the unfinished business from the Balakot standoff needs a less ambiguous final chapter, short of which the BJP risks being domestically perceived as having backed away prematurely from a weaker enemy.
This leads to a fourth and crucial point: Successive regional crises under the BJP mean that the domestic costs for India’s leaders to not be seen as backing down against external adversaries are growing, not diminishing. In the standoff with China, losses incurred by the Indian Army have been a shot in the arm for India’s opposition politicians, who have been quick to condemn the BJP for its lack of preparation and in some cases for surrendering entirely. Conflict with Pakistan could be a much-needed salve for a disheartened Indian media that is largely controlled by the Indian ruling party: According to analysis conducted after an attack on a military convoy in Kashmir last February, Modi got near-total media coverage despite energetic campaigning by India’s opposition at the same time. Bringing up the threat of a salient out-group could help the BJP reenergize its patriotic and supportive base and paper over divisions in its coalition.
A final factor that explains why the China-India standoff may spill over into tensions with Pakistan has to do with the White House’s current occupant: President Donald Trump. Proponents of a strong Indo-U.S. relationship have lobbied hard to present a positive image of bilateral ties, buoyed largely by symbolic spectacles. On the critical economic front leading up to the COVID-19 crisis, however, both the Indian economy and U.S.-Indian economic relations were on a downward trajectory. Trump has at least thrice offered to mediate the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir, the highest U.S. official to do so since President Bill Clinton after the two sides fought a short war over Kargil. New Delhi has traditionally been allergic to the idea of third-party mediation, referring to the 1972 Simla Agreement between India and Pakistan under which both sides agreed to bilaterally resolve outstanding disputes. Ironically, the same Simla Agreement also held that neither party would unilaterally alter the situation in Jammu and Kashmir—a position India itself compromised by revoking Kashmir’s special status last August. Ties between the United States and Pakistan, meanwhile, have seen a steadying in recent years, in part because of Pakistan’s facilitation in helping the United States reach a truce with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The absence of guaranteed validation from Washington on New Delhi’s position toward Pakistan thus makes India less, not more, secure and likely more convinced that it will need to rely on its own strength and power to clearly delineate its territorial and political interests for the foreseeable future.