Home >opinion >India’s strategic restraint is a losing game
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

India’s strategic restraint is a losing game

Lack of imagination and grit has masqueraded for too long as a coherent strategy

Here is how the story plays out. Pakistan-backed terrorists perpetrate an attack on Indian soil, inflicting casualties on civilians and security personnel. India gathers evidence of Pakistan’s involvement and presents it before the global community. New Delhi stops talking to Islamabad. Realizing that this doesn’t yield anything, India makes dossiers out of gathered evidence and sends them to Islamabad, hoping Pakistan will take action. Nothing works out and then there is another attack, another bout of talks being called off and another set of dossiers. And one is left confounded by how Pakistan, a state on the brink of failure, can bleed India, the next big global power, again and again.

The same thoughts would have returned on Sunday morning. Four terrorists attacked the administrative base of an Indian Army unit at Uri in Kashmir. All four were eliminated, but at the cost of the lives of 17 Indian soldiers—the highest number of casualties the Indian Army has suffered in a single terror attack in recent memory. The rhetoric from Indian leaders is a bit sharper this time. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised that those behind the attacks will not go unpunished. Union home minister Rajnath Singh has blamed Pakistan and called for its identification—and isolation—as a terrorist state. Other leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have called for doing away with strategic restraint.

If strategic restraint is such an unpopular choice, why do Indian policymakers stick with it—and the dossiers? The answer lies in the extent of India’s conventional power advantage and the nuclear parity between the two South Asian rivals.

After both countries went explicitly nuclear in 1998, one set of scholars, the nuclear optimists, argued that nuclear weapons would instil deterrence and stabilize the region. Another set of scholars, the nuclear pessimists, pointed to organizational problems which could lead to further destabilization in South Asia. S. Paul Kapur, a pessimist, made an important contribution to this debate. His pessimism stemmed not just from organizational problems but from nuclear parity itself.

If a conventionally weaker power simultaneously harbours territorial dissatisfaction against a conventionally stronger power, then nuclear parity, Kapur said, would help the former engage in destabilizing activities. This is what has been happening with Pakistan (a conventionally weaker and revisionist power) pursuing sub-conventional warfare against India (a conventionally stronger and status-quoist power).

India cannot adequately deploy its conventional superiority because Pakistan has set a low threshold for first nuclear use. Indian policymakers have tried and contemplated multiple tricks to break this impasse. Operation Parakram in the aftermath of the 2001 Parliament attack was a compellence strategy. Compellence is both costly and allows third-party intervention, which is abhorred by India. New Delhi, however, got more than a face-saver with US efforts in 2001-02. In a nationally televised speech in January 2002, then Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf assured that Pakistan’s soil would not be used to mount terror attacks in Kashmir.

Musharraf’s assurances notwithstanding, terrorists launched a gruesome attack on an Indian Army camp in Kaluchak in May 2002, killing soldiers and their family members. India began to prepare for a military response before the US intervened once again. In subsequent years, the idea of a quick mobilization of Indian forces to undertake limited strikes on Pakistan’s territory gained currency. This was called the Cold Start doctrine.

Having never received official sanction, the Cold Start doctrine is as good as non-existent but it became a justification—as explained by General Khalid Kidwai, who served as director general of Pakistan’s strategic plans division for 15 years—for Pakistan to induct battlefield nuclear weapons. This further lowered the bar for strategic escalation as Indian strategic doctrine professes “massive" nuclear retaliation even if responding to a battlefield nuclear attack. Moreover, some experts believe that India does not possess the required conventional superiority to implement quick retaliatory strikes of the kind many Indians crave.

With these options not working, New Delhi decided to write dossiers and post them to Islamabad. While embracing strategic restraint, India has worked towards the diplomatic isolation of Pakistan. The results have been underwhelming again. Any Indian response to Uri will have to negotiate with this historical record.

But New Delhi hasn’t exhausted its options. On the contrary, lack of imagination and grit has masqueraded for too long as strategic restraint, which is both ineffective and unpopular. India may, as many have argued, opt to call Pakistan’s “bluff" of using nuclear weapons. Alternatively, India may change its nuclear doctrine to allow for proportionate or proportionate-plus responses to nuclear attacks while simultaneously building a decisive hard-power edge to signal credibility (deterrence by punishment). Investing in mechanisms to prevent terror attacks (deterrence by denial), however, remains indispensable.

Will New Delhi respond effectively to the Uri attack? Tell us at views@livemint.com

Subscribe to newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.

Click here to read the Mint ePaperLivemint.com is now on Telegram. Join Livemint channel in your Telegram and stay updated

Close
×
My Reads Logout