India: New Delhi's Options for Punishing Pakistan Are Limited

3 MINS READSep 28, 2016 | 20:29 GMT

India is ratcheting up its retaliatory campaign against Pakistan for its alleged role in a deadly Sept. 18 attack on an Indian army base. On Sept. 27, New Delhi announced that it would boycott the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit to be held in Islamabad on Nov. 9. Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan quickly followed suit. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi then promised to review the Indus Water Treaty governing India and Pakistan's usage of the Indus River and its tributaries, which flow through both countries. He will also meet with the heads of the Indian commerce and external affairs ministries on Sept. 29 to discuss invoking the World Trade Organization's dispute resolution mechanism in response to Pakistan's refusal to reciprocate the Most Favored Nation status that New Delhi granted to Islamabad in 1996.

Though these initiatives may appear to be signs of strength, they in fact reveal India's lack of options for punishing Pakistan. They also highlight Modi's pragmatic restraint toward Islamabad. So far, the prime minister has resisted calls by high-ranking figures within his right-wing support base to respond militarily to the Sept. 18 attack. Modi recognizes that using force against a fellow nuclear power is no real solution, and he is searching for alternatives.

Nevertheless, the non-military choices he has settled on will have little effect on Pakistan's policies. Revoking Pakistan's Most Favored Nation status, for instance, would be a largely symbolic move since annual trade between the two countries stands at a meager $2.6 billion. (India's trade with China, by comparison, totaled $71 billion in 2015.) Weak economic ties also explain why boycotting the approaching South Asian summit will do little to tie Islamabad's hands. The eight-member SAARC was formed to promote economic integration in the region, but it is still far from achieving its goal, thanks to the existence of non-tariff barriers to trade among members, a lack of regional connective infrastructure and a focus on liberalizing goods instead of the services sectors that fuel South Asian economies.

This is not to say that Modi's measures will have no effect at all. The symbolic censure of Islamabad may satisfy the jingoistic demands of Modi's constituents ahead of 2017 state elections in Uttar Pradesh, India's most important electoral district. By publicizing his meetings in advance, Modi will try to extract as many gains as he can from taking a seemingly firm stance toward Pakistan while avoiding more serious action that would risk igniting a conflict.

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