India After Elections: Strategic Decisions in a Fluid Environment
National security has occupied the electoral campaign agenda in India. The decision to carry out air strikes on a terrorist camp at Balakot (Pakistan) has become an event that has helped the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) defeat the Indian National Congress. Since the air strikes, the party has ‘played the nationalist card’ in order to maximize their electoral revenues.
However, the constant use of the Pakistani threat in the electoral campaign has raised concerns in Islamabad. Prime Minister Imran Khan has pointed out that the shadows of war still loom over Pakistan and India as (Khan fears that) Modi's government may choose to attack his country again in the coming months. By mortgaging Pakistani politics to his electoral campaign, Modi has caused serious long-term damage to the working procedures established for bilateral cooperation between the two countries.
For some time now, the government of Pakistan has argued that dialogue is the only way for solving disputes between the two countries. However, given the hyper-nationalist atmosphere prevailing in the electoral campaign, New Delhi may reject a proposal for dialogue offered by Islamabad. Of course, during the last five years Modi has whipped up nationalist anti-Pakistan fervour, making it hard for him to justify talks with Pakistan. So, the position adopted by both Modi and the BJP during the elections is just a continuation of the one adopted during the entire legislature. To some extent, this benefits Khan as he can justify to his people and the military elite that he has tried in every way to reach a negotiated settlement with India but that New Delhi is not willing to talk about anything. Therefore, any future aggression is justified. At the same time, there is every reason to believe that tensions between the two countries could soon escalate. Consequently, New Delhi could opt for another punitive attack on terrorist camps in Pakistan, and Islamabad would most likely retaliate.
Nevertheless, provoking Pakistan would bring huge risks for India as Pakistan has the capacity to launch a nuclear attack in 8 seconds and can attack New Delhi in five minutes. It is true that one could argue that the possibilities of a nuclear exchange between the two countries are very limited because we have precedents of previous escalations that have not resulted in nuclear war. However, the possibility is always present when we refer to India and Pakistan, and even more so in the case of Pakistan, as their nuclear doctrine raises the possibility of a first strike under a series of assessed assumptions: The military penetration of Indian Armed Forces into Pakistan on a large scale, the complete knockout or comprehensive destruction of a large part of the Pakistan Armed Forces, economic strangulation and economic blockade, and destabilization of the country by India. As we may observe some of these assumptions are quite vague (particularly the first and the fourth), which means that any incursion or action by India may be perceived as destabilizing by Pakistan and thus it may justify to initiate a nuclear exchange. So, based on Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine the nuclear threshold is very low and escalation can happen very quickly. Even despite India's strategy of massive retaliation, the first attack does not eliminate the real possibility that Pakistan's nuclear missiles will reach several Indian cities. In this context, if New Delhi decides in the short term to resume military activities within Pakistan's territory, there is a real risk that the situation could lead to a nuclear confrontation. Now, Balakot shows that Pakistan's deterrence capacity is deficient and therefore, unless they really want to go to large-scale nuclear war with India, Pakistan must expand and modernize its nuclear capabilities for deterrence purposes.
Nevertheless, and putting on a side the possibility of a nuclear confrontation, the main challenge facing India is China's growing assertiveness in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. This is why we can expect New Delhi's foreign policy in the coming years to focus on Beijing rather than Islamabad.
China is working to alleviate the growing pressure on Pakistan, for example, last month Beijing blocked the initiative to include Masood Azhar, the founder of Jaish-e-Mohammed, on the United Nations list of leaders and terrorist organizations. This use by China of Pakistan to limit India's external action is one of New Delhi's main headaches.
Pakistan is not the only place in the neighbourhood where China seeks to thwart India's ambitions: Beijing continues to reaffirm that Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory, it also has several warships and submarines deployed in the northern Indian Ocean, Chinese pressure continues unabated in Nepal and Bhutan where it seeks favourable terms to resolve its border disputes, and it has also increased its military and economic footprint so that ASEAN countries are within its sphere of influence.
For its part, India continues to have difficulties catching up with Beijing in military and economic terms. In this regard, the new Indian government will have to devote more time to devising strategies to catch up with and overcome China. India can no longer afford to remain complacent with Beijing, China's interests in the Indian Ocean and Pakistan simply do not align with those of India, and Beijing is in a better position to pursue its interests than New Delhi.
None of this suggests that India should start a confrontation with Beijing, but it must find a better balance; this will require closing the military and economic gap with China, for example, according to SIPRI, in 2018 China’s military expenditure was about 250,000 million US$, while India’s was just about 66,500 million US$, a difference of more than 183,500 million US$ which trumps India for being a dominant military power in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. Regarding economics, the World Bank Dataset shows that for the last 10 years, India´s economy in terms of GDP growth just managed to surpass the Chinese one between 2014 and 2017 and just by 0.2%, as well there are signs that India’s economy is stagnating while the Chinese is growing again above 7%. As a consequence further reforms in its economy are needed if India wants to surpass and consolidate itself above China. However, beyond military spending and the need for economic reforms, India needs to have a bureaucratic and institutionally functional State in order to solidify its ability to achieve the previous stated goals. It is too early to predict how the new Modi administration will approach China, but there is no doubt that the challenge that Beijing poses requires a response.
On the other hand, India and the United States continue to strengthen their defence ties through so-called enabling agreements, new consultations, and arms sales. Building on the efforts of its predecessor, the Trump administration describes India as a centrepiece of its Indo-Pacific strategy, and it is this conception that has forced Washington to gradually move from being a "neutral arbiter" in Kashmir to openly confronting Pakistan. Now, Washington will have to manage its expectations of what India is willing to assume, or can achieve, vis-à-vis China. The United States must be careful not to turn its fight with China into a binary option for India where it approaches China for economic and trade revenues while does the same with the US for security ones.
These elections have been watched closely around the world due to the possible direction of the Indian foreign policy in the coming years. India’s sheer economic potential and military capacity has meant that Indian politics and activity cannot be ignored by other states with interests in the Indo-Pacific region. Today, India has a new voice and has made the world to listen it carefully. There is recognition of India's potential and the hope that India can combine its rhetoric with action on the ground.
There is no doubt that Modi's foreign policy has been vigorous, the question remains whether this approach can be maintained after the elections because India continues to suffer from a capacity deficit vis-à-vis China. Consequently, the next government in New Delhi will have to work with a unique approach if it wants to maintain the current foreign policy momentum.
Manuel Herrera is an international security analyst who previously worked at the Nuclear Security Programme at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi (India) as a research assistant. He devoted his research to the Iranian nuclear file and the Indo-Pakistan conflict.
Manuel was also an intern at the Department of the Interior of the Catalan Government where he draft a report on the EU Area of Freedom, Security and Justice and its main mechanisms for exports control of sensitive nuclear materials.
He holds a master's degree in International Security from IBEI and a master's degree in European Union Studies from the European Institute in Bilbao. He also has a bachelor degree in International Relations from the Ramon LLull University of Barcelona.