In Border Dispute, India Tests Status Quo with Pakistan

4 MINS READJan 15, 2015 | 10:30 GMT
Tensions With Pakistan Help India's Modi Appease Conservatives While Risking Instability
Pakistani and Indian border guards participate in a flag ceremony at the Wagah Border Post in 2014

The Indo-Pakistani border has seen an increase in violence over the past two weeks, and the two nuclear states are struggling to find a mechanism to de-escalate tensions while letting both governments save face. Domestic politics have changed the way New Delhi handles border violence, exacerbating the cross-border shelling that began in July 2014. Under the previous government led by the United Progressive Alliance, New Delhi worked with Islamabad through back channels. The two sides were able to manage border violence, especially as Indian and Pakistani border forces coordinated using established hotlines.

However, this joint management no longer exists. Domestic issues are forcing new Indian President Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, to toughen its stance against Islamabad, while Pakistan's military is loathe to show weakness toward India in the midst of its own growing assault on domestic militants. While the conflict is likely to remain limited to shelling and bombardments of the cross-border area, the high levels of firing and poor communication between both sides significantly increase the risk of a miscalculation. Islamist militants will also seek to take advantage of the current situation to launch cross-border attacks against Indian targets, a development that would be difficult for New Delhi to ignore. Regardless, India will seek to maintain the status quo as long as it benefits its domestic politics. 

Indian Border Security Forces increased shelling and firing from their side of the boundary over the weekend of Jan. 10-11. However, there have only been about 50 civilian and military casualties on both sides of the border, a relatively low number. Because of this low-intensity fighting, Islamabad and New Delhi are feeling little pressure to address the situation. Furthermore, the groups doing the fighting, Islamabad's Pakistan Rangers and New Delhi's Indian Border Security Forces, are not formal components of the military. Both countries want to avoid committing military forces to the border, a move that would signal an escalation of the conflict.

Political Factors Hinder Cooperation

A number of issues have come together to push the BJP government to take a firm stance against what it says is Pakistani aggression and violations of cease-fire and border agreements, escalating tensions between the two countries. The BJP campaigned heavily against what it said was the previous government's weakness in dealing with Pakistan, and rising Hindu nationalist elements within the Indian government have complicated attempts to reach a solution from behind the scenes. Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is rumored to have dismissed phone calls and letters from Pakistani officials, including National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz, further damaging communication efforts. The Modi Cabinet has largely avoided direct talks with Pakistan on the subject, and attempts to negotiate via back channels have not been fruitful. Indian media outlets have been quick to report on the failed attempts after receiving leaks.

Local politics have also hurt negotiations. The BJP, which only has a majority in the lower house of parliament, is on an aggressive nationwide campaign to secure as many state governments as possible because of the role they play in selecting representatives in the Rajya Sabha, or India's upper house of parliament. The party is currently engaged in intense negotiations with its rival, the People's Democratic Party, to form a government in Jammu and Kashmir state, where much of India's disputed border with Pakistan is located. The BJP government wants to portray itself as tough on Pakistan to boost public support, and thereby votes, not only in Jammu and Kashmir but also in constituencies across India.

Throughout his first term in office, many have accused Modi of lacking strong and decisive leadership. Those that expected him to recreate the same style of close and effective management he used during his tenure as chief minister of Gujarat have been left unsatisfied. Modi has struggled to deliver on promises of ambitious reforms, and his Cabinet and parliament have been eager to pursue a wide range of policy initiatives outside the pro-business and anti-corruption slogans that have become a mainstay of Modi's politics.

While his domestic agenda has fizzled, Modi has had success in the arena of foreign policy. His term began with a series of promises of investment from China, Australia, Japan and South Korea, as well as high-profile visits from both Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama. His current tough stance against Pakistan is popular among core BJP supporters, so Modi does not want to risk alienating voters by changing his course. Similarly, Modi needs his party's backing and cooperation to deliver on his reforms initiative, further reducing his desire and ability to ease tensions along the border, especially when what the public perceives as a strong Indian response risks few causalities or formal military engagement.

A Risky Strategy

Although the BJP's current strategy is helping it domestically, it is not without its risks. Trade and peace talks with Pakistan have stalled in recent months, and India's actions have placed pressure on the Pakistani government and military at a time when they are focused on fighting domestic militants through Operation Zarb-e-Azb. Despite India's accusations that elements within the Pakistani state are helping militants planning attacks on Indian targets, Pakistan's campaign to fight militants will benefit Indian security.

The status quo risks degrading bilateral ties between the two countries, but an actual war is unlikely. However, if Pakistan is unable to limit militant activity from its side of the border — such as the Nov. 2, 2014, attack on the Wagah border crossing that killed 60 and wounded over 100 — India's government may find itself under pressure from hard-liners within the BJP party to deliver a more forceful response against Pakistani aggression, which could risk an escalation.

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