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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Modi's commitment trap

Modi forges a commitment trap

Party manifestos are useful but not the best start point for looking for a government's strategic perspective. Manifestos are somewhat tarred by the likelihood of being populist, intended as they are to garner votes. They understandably end up being 'all things to all people'. In India's case, as its strategic doctrine has not been articulated, it can instead be better gleaned instead by following national security related speeches. In the case of the previous government, in which the prime minister was famously silent, the government's strategic perspective was visible in the speeches of his National Security Adviser, Mr. Shivshankar Menon. His successor being silent so far, in case of the current government, the prime minister's speeches can be a useful start point.

The last speech at Badami Bagh threw up some interesting highlights on what Mr. Modi's security outlook was shaping up to be. This time round, on his second visit to J&K since taking over his chair, his speech to the uniformed fraternity in Ladakh has already provided rich fare for primetime commentary. While prime time commentators have no doubt moved on to more immediate and pressing subjects, such as the sudden cancellation of India-Pakistan talks, it may be worthwhile to pause at the speech for a little while longer to see if it provides any clues as to why the cancellation.

Even though it did create quite a stir at the 9-o'clock slot on TV, the prime minister did not
quite say anything new. His website reports him as saying that a neighbouring country
 (Pakistan was not named), having exhausted its ability to wage war, is instead resorting
to proxy war and terrorism. This has taken more lives than war itself. India is committed to
mobilize 'humanitarian forces' against the menace of terrorism.

The fact is that Pakistan has exhausted the potential to change the status quo in Kashmir
by military means. Cut to size in 1971, it went nuclear covertly. This by the early eighties
provided it cover for proxy war, first in Punjab, and then, by end-decade in Kashmir.
This is in keeping with the concept known in strategic theory as 'Stability/Instability paradox'.
The concept has it that threat of escalation to the nuclear level, ensures stability
at the conventional level. This opens up the sub-conventional space for proxy war.

For tackling proxy war, in particular, its manifestation in a mega terror attack,
Mr. Modi mentions two strategies: one is mobilizing 'humanitarian forces'
and the second is military preparedness. The reference to 'humanitarian forces'
is either poor drafting of his speech or translation of his words. It is unclear who these forces are.
Maybe he means international players against terrorism, such as the US. So, this can be
taken as reference to the diplomatic prong of strategy: isolate and compel Pakistan to change
its strategy of proxy war.

This is perhaps feasible in light of the US departure from the region. In exiting Afghanistan
substantially by 2016, US reliance on Pakistan will be negligible. This reliance had ensured
 that it intervened in 2002 to preserve Pakistan from conventional retribution by India after
the parliament attack. Now, with little US interest at stake, Pakistan would be relatively vulnerable.
However, the reverse is also true. With US pressure on it, Pakistan did clamp down on proxy war
since 2004. Without US pressure, this could well escalate once again. And US will have
little reason to clamp down again, leave alone the pressure points for this.

Pakistan has taken care with plausible deniability measures to be able to distance itself from mega terror attacks. Its civilian government could truthfully say it had nothing to do with it. The military may point to rogue elements it cannot control, which has an element of truth. The international community may baulk at sanctioning Pakistan lest the extremists gain in power, as they would be better placed to profit from any downturn. The international community may look at the 'pull' factors such as unresolved territorial disputes, human rights violations etc. There may be those within the international community less inclined to sanction Pakistan, such as for instance the Gulf states for geopolitical reasons. China may not want to its cats-paw in the region go under. Therefore, India may end up going it alone, with much mealy-mouthed support from 'humanitarian forces'. In fact, for India's pains, it may end up putting the Kashmir problem, now on the back burner, back into the frame.

That leaves India with the military prong of strategy. It is apparently girding this up as its fallback position. In case the diplomatic prong confronts Pakistani skepticism or obstruction, the conventional prong of strategy can kick-in. Firstly, this can bolster the diplomatic prong in that India's military preparations in the background will lend urgency to crisis diplomacy attending the aftermath of a mega terror attack. The international community, aware that India cannot end up once again only doing coercive diplomacy as in 2003; this may be the real thing. Therefore, it will feel pressured into reacting in real time with pressure on Pakistan to make the necessary noises as a first step and to take some placatory steps, even if not back track all the way. This would be good strategy, but one that can at best yield limited results. It can only be productive if India agrees to talk meaningfully. This is unthinkable since India's longstanding position has been that it will not negotiate at the point of a gun. A nationalist government such as Mr. Modi's is unlikely to go down this track. Therefore, diplomatic moves will be only enough to contain the crisis and set the stage for the next one, but not to roll back the problem.

Secondly, the military prong can be deployed to administer conventional punishment. The air force has indicated a readiness, having drawn up a 5000 targets long list. The integrated battle groups of the army are ready, though it may use these selectively, perhaps launching only a few initially. The intention will be to convey a message that there is more to come unless Pakistan changes tack. The problem is that if this is a limited foray and even if there is more forming-up in the wake for delivering greater punishment, military-led Pakistan may up-the-ante itself. It may be pressured from its right wing not to play ball. This would prove escalatory. Even if India believes it has 'escalation dominance', meaning it can punish Pakistan militarily at both levels conventional and nuclear, the fact is that in the end, escalation cannot be ruled out. The strategic logic of the situation, that India would rely on to convince Pakistan to back down, is just as likely as not to be overtaken by the political logic within Pakistan.

What emerges is that Mr. Modi's twin-track crisis strategy - diplomacy and military - is unlikely to yield result at the crunch. Pakistan's 'deep state', even without the strategic logic outlined here, would for ideological reasons fail to be impressed. This implies that sooner or later Mr. Modi will have to rely on his twin-track policy, found here to hold less water than Mr. Modi suspects. It is possible that the offer being made to Pakistan is simple: take it or leave it. The army in the chair there, the answer is predictable. Pakistan has already rejected the accusation as 'baseless rhetoric'. Taking cue, India has called off the talks. Perhaps, the speech was to manufacture a rationale for just such a juncture. The commitment trap Mr. Modi has dug up is certainty of trouble ahead. In this game of 'chicken', knowing Mr. Modi and his adviser, Mr. Dovel, won't, let's hope Pakistan's army blinks first!

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