Indian foreign policy could do with some irrationalism

Warning: Use under close adult supervision

Vir Sanghvi’s article in Mid-Day, a Mumbai tabloid, led to a little discussion with Amit Varma over what Sanghvi calls ‘India’s obsessive compulsive disorder’.

Interestingly, as Sanghvi’s article reveals, the most voluble critics of the Indian government’s perceived preoccupation with Pakistan are Indians themselves (which is a good thing). According to this line of argument, with Pakistan taking up much of the India’s diplomatic bandwidth, it finds itself with little time and room to further its interests, both in its immediate neighbourhood and in the wider world. Further, it suggests that India must pay less attention to Pakistan and hopefully, translate the spare time to profit vis-a-vis its relations with everyone else.

Antithesis and self-proclaimed nemesis
But the point is Pakistan cannot be ignored — it has devoted itself to countering India at every possible opportunity. Its involvement in destabilising India through sponsorship of cross-border terrorism in Punjab, Kashmir and the North-East are just the tip of the iceberg. Its possession of nuclear weapons and threat to use it as an umbrella for conventional war (Kargil) already poses a chronic existential threat. Its policy to hold regional social and economic development subsidiary to its territorial ambitions over Kashmir has not changed. Most importantly, although much has been made of Pakistan’s alliace with the United States, it has long been, and firmly remains, China’s ‘soft satellite’. From the Karakoram highway, to Gwadar Port, to Aksai Chin, to nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, the Pakistan-China nexus remains India’s most serious geo-strategic challenge. In other words, there is enough in this quarter to keep the Indian foreign policy establishment awake at night.

But how does this preoccupation manifest itself in actual policy? Unfortunately, not quite sufficiently enough. That is because it is restricted to attempts to explain its righteousness and seize the moral high-ground. That’s all very well, but that’s not quite the end of the story. Deliberate irrationalism is not a significant part of India’s foreign policy.

Flexing not strutting
Deliberate irrationalism involves giving an impression that in certain extreme conditions, a country will respond way out of proportion to the actual provocation. The most common example of this is the manner in which China retaliates when other countries even marginally scale up their engagement with Taiwan. The US invasion of Afghanistan in response to 9/11 is another case in point. Operation Parakram, when India mobilised troops to its border with Pakistan in response to the attack on its parliament is, arguably, an example of its only recent use by India. Therefore, threatening an irrational response, and being prepared to carry it out is a powerful tool of foreign policy.

Indeed, given the lack of too many options, there is a strong case for India to employ deliberate irrationalism in its immediate neighbourhood, including with Pakistan — to signal that there are some limits beyond which India will be really, really, upset.

One argument against this tactic is that it is costly. But this does not automatically mean that it is counterproductive. If executed properly, a ‘costly’ exercise in irrationalism can be converted into a long term investment in deterrance.

So how does this relate to the preoccupation with Pakistan? India allowed Pakistan to be dragged out of the international doghouse way too early. It may have suited American foreign policy to label Musharraf white, but India was wrong to give him the benefit of long proven doubts. There remains a case to isolate Pakistan until it rids itself of its military dictatorship and separatism in Kashmir. India must consider using irrationalism should the trend of mollycoddling Musharraf continue to its disadvantage.

11 thoughts on “Indian foreign policy could do with some irrationalism”

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  2. Hi,

    I think the obsession with Pakistan is more than justified.

    “Pakistan” is merely a manifestation, a specific path, in the grand direction of Islamist politics in the Indian subcontinent. The highest traditions of serious Islamic political thinking were laid by giants like Shaikh Sirhindi and Shah Waliallah. Of these I consider Shah Waliallah to be more influential in the political sphere. Waliallah Sahab’s ideas were born in the time of uncertainity that followed the fall of Mughal authority in Delhi. The day the Marathas walked into Delhi, the political class of the empire, mostly high-born Muslim sayyids realized that their authority and pre-eminence was at an end. In the intellectual world of Indian Islam – this development caused a stir and it was left to the genius of Shah Waliallah to produce the core of a coherent philosophy that would enable the Muslims of India to generate political leverage in a time of flux.

    Versions of Shah Waliallah’s political ideology are present in most parts of the Indian Subcontinent. The Pakistani version is the most virulent and most divisive. Most people do not realize (and I include all the so-called Hindu Right Wing ideologues I have spoken to in that number) that the “muslim minority” in India (150 Million) taken together with the populations of Pakistan (130 Million) and Bangladesh (200 Million) adds up about 480 Million people, roughly half the total population of Muslims in the world. Also bear in mind that *most* of the educated and well-off Muslims in the world are Indian citizens.

    The combined strength of this community would easily lay claim to the leadership of the Muslim world. If not that they could act as the engine for growth and moderization in the Muslim world – an immensely socially and politically positive process. If on the other hand the this community is allowed to be politically unified per the Pakistani paradigm – through a series of interconnected Jihads and on the backbone of a robust trade in narcotics – the Muslim world will be condemned to another Jahilliya. The global consequences of this are quite obvious.

    This is the fine line that India ideologically and political holds. This line is painted with the blood of Indian soldiers in places like Kashmir and Indian civilians in places like Gateway of India. Most observers in the West are not tuned in to the reality of Pakistan’s Islamist ambitions. They see these ideas as fanciful dreams of a deluded military caste. While there may be some truth to that – the West too shares similar delusions about the reach of its “way of thinking” in Pakistan. In my opinion, these delusions are competing with each other.

    Anyone who thinks we are spending too much time on Pakistan – clearly has no idea what they are talking about.

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