Written by Brajesh Kumar.

India and Pakistan both owe their origin to the great Indus Valley Civilisation – rich, diverse and varied – which lasted from 3300BC to 1300BC. Both nations have a shared history, culture and language and were part of a common heritage and race until 72 years ago. However, after the partition in 1947 things began to change, and the relationship between the two sovereign nations has been far from cordial, for a variety of justifiable reasons.

India will need to develop an effective counter-terror mechanism to deal with Pakistan in terms of intelligence, neutralising targets, better standard operating procedures (SOPs) for the security forces and technology along with a military response for the future

A fairly large section of Indian intellectuals holds the belief that India is a soft state, despite its size, economy and military prowess, especially when dealing with its western neighbour – Pakistan – with which it has fought four short but intensive wars over the last seven decades.

Apart from the 1971 war, which was decisive and led to the creation of Bangladesh by dismembering Pakistan, the other conflicts ended in just a few gains here and there. Over the years India has become much more powerful – both economically and militarily – in comparison with Pakistan, which now lags behind Bangladesh, and the general belief has been that India punches below its geopolitical weight.

All this was set to change with the 2014 election results, however, where for the first time the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – a nationalist party led by Narendra Modi – rode to power on a popular mandate with a clear majority. The BJP is a proponent of the idea of a strong India on the basis of ‘Comprehensive National Power, a youthful population and the world’s third highest GDP, and it advocates a more proactive role for India commensurate with its stature. This suits Narendra Modi and his National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, a former intelligence chief.

The new government started off on the front foot, inviting all heads of state and governments of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to the swearing-in ceremony. Premier Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan was an honoured guest. Modi then paid a surprise visit to Lahore, leaving aside protocol, to attend the wedding of Sharif’s granddaughter – the first visit in a decade by an Indian prime minister (PM). However, Sharif had little room for manoeuvre as Pakistan’s PM, being hemmed in by the Pakistan Army and himself embroiled in various cases, and so he had to go.

From day one, Modi set about shaping India’s new foreign policy – with the support of his capable Foreign Minister, Sushma Swaraj – making it proactive in building strong relationship with states, putting dealings with other heads of government on a personal footing, using bold measures against terror, and leveraging India’s soft power.

India’s response to a number of terror attacks and border violations during the last five years indicates a noticeable shift in its policy, as the following examples highlight:

  • 4 June 2015 – Naga militants ambush 18 soldiers in Manipur
  • 10 June 2015 – hot pursuit and liquidation of the Naga militants inside Myanmar
  • 18 September 2016 – attack by the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM) on Indian soldiers at the town of Uri in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K)
  • 29 September 2016 – surgical strike across the Line of Control (LOC) inside Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) to avenge the Uri strike
  • June–August 2017 –border standoff between India and China at Doklam on the border between China and Bhutan
  • 26 Feb 2019 –air strike(s) by the Indian Air Force (IAF) at Balakot inside Pakistan to avenge the Pulwama tragedy

In the past, the Indian approach was defensive and episodic, relying on diplomacy and political management. The above examples are evidence of a significant shift in India’s stance in relation to Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine (which threatens a nuclear response to any attack) and it is making the international community worried. India’s proactive response has sent an important message about its resolve to take military action on Pakistan’s sovereign territory in the wake of an unacceptable terror attack. India’s Foreign Secretary went to great lengths to justify the recent action, claiming it was aimed at a terror facility rather than any military or civilian target and that the purpose was to control and prevent the escalation of cross-border attacks.

On 27 February Pakistan carried out a return air strike and hit an Indian MIG while Pakistan lost an F-16 aircraft. Facts about the air engagement are shrouded and yet to surface clearly. However, the quick and unconditional release of the Indian MIG pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan by Premier Imran Khan has helped to cool frayed tempers and control any escalation.

The Indian diplomatic offensive has yielded results by bringing most of the international community onto its side. India’s participation in the 2019 summit of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in March was another positive outcome, as is the impending action by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) against Pakistan in retaliation for allowing terrorist groups to operate on its territory. Meanwhile, China bailed out Pakistan by ensuring the UN Security Council did not classify JEM chief Masood Azhar as an international terrorist for the fourth time.

India will need to develop an effective counter-terror mechanism to deal with Pakistan in terms of intelligence, neutralising targets, better standard operating procedures (SOPs) for the security forces and technology along with a military response for the future. Given the structure of Pakistan and the army’s stranglehold over governance as well as its increasing financial empire, it is not likely to give in and therefore terror strikes are likely to continue. ‘Talks and Terror will continue to be the name of the game between these two recalcitrant neighbours for some time to come.

Having upped the ante, India’s foreign and security policies have become major electoral issues in the general elections beginning next month. Whatever the result, it is certain that the next government will have to adapt to a risk-taking stand in contrast to the risk-averse policy of yore. That represents a qualitative shift.

Does the world worry that the region of South Asia continues to be a nuclear flashpoint? Very likely, given that most nuclear powers work with complete clarity on their nuclear command and control (NC2), that their SOPs for command-and-control related issues are well defined and rehearsed, and all their doctrines and policies are in the public domain. In the context of South Asia, these parameters appear to be hazy, and therefore dangerous.

Given the civilizational culture of working on an ad hoc basis – often makeshift and personalised with a fair amount of ambiguity – this doesn’t offer much comfort. Nonetheless, judging by events over the last two decades since the Kargil war in 1999, the region continues to be reasonably safe.

India’s quest for sustaining its strategic autonomy in a shared partnership with other nations of the world will be greatly influenced by the results of the elections next month. So the answer to the question of whether India is muscular but reluctant will necessarily have to wait until the election results are announced on 23 May 2019.

Major General Brajesh Kumar (Retd) AVSM VSM is a security analyst based in Noida, India. 

*Articles published by The Asia Dialogue represent the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of The Asia Dialogue or affiliated institutions.


  1. This Govt has been able to blunt Pakistans pseudo Nuclear threat through its actions & statements. Another term for this setup alongwith favourable US winds should result in a good position for India to commence fruitful comprehensive talks. The author has nicely summarised Indo-Pak status.

  2. Comprehensive and chronological. Impact of massive mandate of 2014 has been evaluated only in foreign policy perspective which has been handled reasonably well. Author may have delved little on internal environment with in the country which has bearing on foreign policy. Nation is as strong as it is from within. Political paradigm needs to graduate to higher level.
    Overall, a very well written article.

  3. Short & sweet based on actual facts Article deliveres punch of knowledge needed by every Indian to feel proud of shift in stance for survival in this wild wild World in its day today life to feel secure in its own land from terror attacks.

  4. Good analysis. A significant shift from past 70 years is swift retaliation deep beyond the LOC and IB for the first time. World has realised that India is no more reluctant! Hope the present Govt takes charge again.

  5. Well reasoned take on India of today, refreshingly removed for pol coloured take we often get to see. Well crafted Brajesh!

  6. Gen Brajesh has analysed the entire scenario very well. No doubt India needs to revisit its strategy of combating cross border terrorism. With Ajit Doval, the super sleuth as NSA, it should not be difficult to eliminate terror master minds living in Pakistan and enjoying their protective hospitality in their own strongholds.

  7. Well written article. India has indeed proven that she no longer is soft state and has the capability and will to hit where it hurts.
    Pakistan too realizes the shift and will have to mend her policy.
    Next Govt will have further sharpen the edge acquired.

  8. Well delivered
    Nation is strong within though we would have differing opinions and should not fall prey to external designs.
    The youth of today are well informed and quite nationalistic in their aspirations, politicians aside.
    We need to continue to focus on our “Strategic Autonomy” and this is possible only when we have a stable government. We cannot lose out on the momentum

  9. Muscular response indeed but India is no more reluctant especially after its strong calibrated response to Pakistan in recent times.
    Very detailed perspective of this significant shift; Rest consolidation shall happen post 23May.

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