Manoj Joshi is perplexed by India’s Pakistan strategy. He works through the options of the Modi government to try and understand what it is up to on the Pakistan front. He rules out the option of ‘defeating’ Pakistan as utterly impossible. The less hard line option of using military force to compel Pakistan to change its policy, the strategy of compellence, is also similarly ruled out.

The third option he muses on is whether the aim is to break up Pakistan, in a seeming reversal of Pakistan’s own anti-India strategy of a ‘death by a thousand cuts’. To him this would amount to an earthquake registering 10 on the Richter scale, as it would imply a nuclear power dissolving into chaos.

The final option, requiring patience and stamina, is “to seek the transformation of Pakistan into a ‘normal’ state”. While he appears to favour this option, he fears that this government is relying instead on ‘its military or clandestine services’ clout’.

Though Joshi is right about India’s inability to effect a ‘favourable transformation in the behaviour of its adversaries through a mix of strategies’, he misreads the government’s intent. This misreading leads to his otherwise sustainable critique of the government’s Pakistan strategy.

This is the problem with most of the commentary that has attended the recent calling-off of talks for a second time in two years between the two nuclear-armed adversaries.

To begin by being charitable to the government, it can be argued that if the strategy requiring ‘patience and stamina’ has been tried  out since Rajiv Gandhi’s times, as pointed out by Joshi, and it has evidently not worked, it would not be sensible to persist with it.

This can plausibly explain India’s hard power approach to Pakistan involving largely its military and possibly its intelligence instruments. The strategy is to condition the military-intelligence dominated power structure in Pakistan with the explicit message that its ‘terror by proxy’ strategy will not work.

Simultaneously, India has networked with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif twice over – once in an invite to New Delhi last year and this time round in Ufa, indicating its willingness to attend the SAARC summit in Pakistan due next year. In doing so it is holding out an economic carrot to Pakistan’s business-commercial constituency.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Pakistani counterpart, Mr. Nawaz Sharif in New Delhi last year. Pic:

Such a strategy is plausible in the conservative-realist framework of strategic thinking. Critiques that originate in the liberal-rationalist and the leftist-radical perspectives cannot but find fault with the strategy.

The differing strategic perspectives rely on different security referents – whether state centric or people centric - and consequently assign different weights to the instruments of state power: economic, political-diplomatic, military and intelligence and soft-cultural. These critiques can at best establish that India’s strategy is wrong-headed in its choice of referent, favoured instrument and strategy.

Whether it is also a wrong one can only be gauged using its very own coordinates, its rationale from within its perspective. Can it be argued that the strategy is wrong in the conservative-realist logic?

In a lecture delivered before he assumed his current position, the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval had indicated his preference for a ‘defensive offence’ strategy. From the choice of three – defensive, defensive offence and offensive – he favours the second. Assuming that Doval, now that he has spent a year in the chair as NSA, has put his strategy into operation, India’s declared strategic doctrine can be said to be one of ‘defensive  offence’.

This implies that while the overall strategic posture is defensive, intended to protect India, the execution of the strategy will be offensive, through use of its military, diplomatic and intelligence instruments to hurt Pakistan in case of transgress. However, Doval has perhaps simplified the strategic options continuum for his audience. It is more variegated moving in aggressive intent and content from the defensive end through deterrence at the center to compellence at the other end.

There is a thin line between the profession of ‘defensive offence’ and ‘offensive defence’. The latter better describes Pakistan’s India strategy in that it is offensive but with a defensive purpose. Since it cannot defend against a mighty India, it takes the offensive to the adversary. This explains its penchant for proxy war to cut India to size and its offensive military doctrine including use of tactical nuclear weapons.

What should ‘defensive offence’ look like for India and does this match what India professes?

Firstly, ‘defensive offence’ was long abandoned by India in favour of deterrence at the next rung. India has since moved away from ‘deterrence by denial’, based on a strong defence and counter offensive capability. It has in this century switched to ‘deterrence by punishment’ with a shift to the ‘proactive’ and offensive conventional doctrine – the proactive strategy that is also called ‘Cold Start’ - and in its nuclear doctrine promises ‘massive’ nuclear punitive retaliation.

Since the new government fancies itself as distinct from its predecessor in its reliance and adeptness in the use of force, it cannot also be said that there is continuity in India’s strategic doctrine. The previous NSA Shivshankar Menon’s speeches suggested a liberal orientation, conveying its strategic doctrine of offensive deterrence. Since this government prides itself on being more aggressive, it is, therefore, not in the ‘defensive offence’ portion of the continuum as it imagines, but in the offensive part of it.

The offensive diplomatic action in cutting off talks twice over suggest as much. The government’s boast on its first anniversary was that it has cleared Rs 160 lakh crores worth of defence projects. Both the NSA and the defence minister have obliquely hinted at intelligence operations underway. At the level of ideation, military history is being rewritten – even to the extent of projecting what is widely regarded as a draw, the 1965 War, as a victory!

In other words, India is not on the ‘defensive offence’ as Doval puts it, but closer to compellence.

Two problems follow. One, India’s delusional self-image that is distinct from reality is likely leading it to launch actions that could prove counter-productive, since compelling a nuclear power is ambitious and risky. The second is in the impulse that is leading to such actions.

The impulse for such an ambitious undertaking cannot merely be ‘strategic’, defined in terms of an ‘ends-means balance’. It is instead grander, millennial. The well springs of this are not in rational strategy but in ideology, specifically that of cultural nationalism.

It is the marriage of cultural nationalism and hyper-nationalism that nests at the far edge of the conservative-realist perspective that best explains India’s Pakistan strategy. Therefore, strategic rationality cannot explain India’s actions such as cutting off of talks a second time round. Most commentators err in assuming this is so, making the prescriptions redundant.

Recognising that India’s new security paradigm is one of offensive-compellence is a precursor to bringing strategic rationality back into India’s security calculus.