India’s Politics of Brinksmanship on Kashmir

Since the December 13 attack on the Indian Parliament, the Indian government has not been engaged in the politics of actually preparing to go to war but rather in the politics of brinksmanship.

The military risks (the uncertainty of military gains given a definite and strong Pakistan military response) and the political risks (alienating international opinion, especially the U.S. preoccupied with stabilizing the post-Taliban situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan) are too great for India actually to go to war. Of course, the high-risk strategy of brinksmanship carries the danger of matters getting out of hand and may lead to an actual war. This has not happened yet, and increasingly looks even less likely, which comes as a relief. Since the nuclear weapons tests of 1998, there is always the potential for any military conflict between the two countries to escalate to the nuclear level.

The current crisis may simply be a prologue to future ones. The Indian government, and a very large section of elite opinion backing it, feels that the recent round of brinksmanship politics has actually paid substantial dividends, domestically and externally. Moreover, a growing section (albeit still a minority) of the Indian elite has become progressively more belligerent and believes that Indian security cannot be achieved through any strategy of coexistence with Pakistan but only through the dissolution of the Pakistani state.

The rise of such views is, of course, intimately connected to the growing spread of the ideology of Hindu nationalism and chauvinism espoused by the Bharatiya Janata Party (and its cohort organizations in Indian civil society), The BJP, which leads the current coalition government, has long been determined to transform the Indian polity and society into a more authoritarian and anti-secular direction. This government has used the developments since September 11 and December 13 to curb civil liberties, harass its domestic opponents, further communalize the Indian education system, spread anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan sentiments, and promote a more belligerent and aggressive elite nationalism in keeping with its general political ideology. What’s more, it has diverted attention away from its political failure in Kashmir. The Kashmiri population has been alienated not only by the brutalities inflicted by Pakistan-supported terrorist groups but also by the terrorist repressions carried out by the Indian armed forces in the region.

Externally, the politics of brinksmanship has succeeded in getting the U.S. to do what it was reluctant to do before: namely, explicitly blacklist certain Pakistan-based terrorist groups for the first time, and put pressure on the Musharraf government to clamp down on these groups. Like Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians, the Indian government utilized American behavior after September 11 as a precedent to justify its own effort to isolate Pakistan politically, even if it could not emulate the arrogance of Israel’s military actions.

If the U.S. could disregard international law and norms concerning presentation of evidence and proper procedures for the pursuit of retributive justice and simply claim that in the “war against global terrorism” it had the right to define who the world’s terrorists are (and are not), and was justified in attacking Afghanistan as the country that harbors terrorists, then surely Israel and India could do the same! The U.S., therefore, formally acknowledged India’s right to “self-defense” against terrorists but has acted behind the scenes to prevent an outbreak of war.

The U.S. link with Pakistan has now become even more important–making the medium- and long-term perspectives regarding the India-Pakistan-U.S. triangle more complicated and uncertain, irrespective of the current short-term gains made by New Delhi. The U.S. has now for the first time established a military-political presence in the region with major ramifications for its perceived potential challengers: Russia, China, and Iran. This has to do not just with oil and gas politics but also with larger geopolitical considerations now that the U.S. is in Russia’s traditional backyard and wooing, with some success, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan (and other central Asian states) where it would like to establish more permanent bases.

In Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, a significant U.S. military presence has been secured. The challenge for Musharraf is whether he can use this U.S. presence to outflank his opponents and reinforce his links with the U.S.–or whether this will be a major handicap eventually playing into the hands of his more militant Islamist opponents. The U.S. is now deeply involved in trying to shape Pakistan’s internal politics to best suit its perceived interests. Currently, this involves keeping the Pakistan army united behind Musharraf through the disbursal of U.S. economic largesse and weaponry. Pakistan’s traditionally strong links with Saudi Arabia remain important, in that American strategic dominance in the Middle East requires maintaining the Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia tripod of client states.

What will be the direction of Indian foreign policy given this overall scenario? Earlier, New Delhi may have entertained hopes that the U.S. would soon prefer India’s replacement of Pakistan as its most “allied ally” in the region, and also as a strategic counterweight to China. This was always something of an illusion given the enormous asymmetry of power between the U.S. and India. The U.S. would prefer to pursue closer links with both India and Pakistan rather than play the Indian game. Moreover, Washington is not about to prioritize its relations with India over its relationship with China. The lure of a closer strategic relationship with India is not so important that it would be allowed to determine, or even seriously influence, the nature of U.S. foreign policy perspectives vis-à-vis China.

After Sept. 11, India has forsaken the idea that a strategic U.S. shift away from Pakistan should be the precondition for a sturdy India-U.S. alliance. Now it is more than willing to pursue such an alliance in the mere hope that eventually Washington may come around to sharing New Delhi’s views about Islamabad.

Kashmir will continue to bedevil India-Pakistan relations. The new American presence in South and Central Asia, and the emergence of Kashmir as a possible nuclear flashpoint, mean that Kashmir has now become internationalized, or more accurately, Americanized. The U.S. has not yet established its range of strategic options concerning Kashmir or how these would fit into its wider geostrategic ambitions. But it will eventually get around to this. And it is these perceived self-interests that will guide U.S. behavior, not the concerns of the Indian and Pakistani governments–and certainly not the deep desire for justice and peace that the long-suffering people of Kashmir on both sides of the border may have.