South Asia's nuclear powers must sidestep political turmoil if they hope to rescue a key bilateral relationship.

Indian voters in 2009. Credit: Flick/publicresourceorgBy Antoine Levesques, Research Associate for South Asia 

India and Pakistan both face a period of uncertainty, each nation confronted by pressing internal issues and questions over their rival’s intentions and capabilities. The two nuclear-armed countries will both hold general elections in the next year, and their bilateral and strategic relationship is currently at a 15-year low. Their politicians’ ability to solve crises will tank from June 2018 while major powers are committed elsewhere, so the pair must act now to alleviate potential risks.

Pakistan is in a febrile pre-electoral season, with polling expected in the second half of July. Foreign diplomats warn that political initiative and the capacity for action have largely vanished from government departments. The Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) and Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) are jostling with the ruling Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) to decide the caretakers who, from early June, will see the country through the polls. Islamabad is also talking to international lenders in a bid to stave off a balance of payments crisis.

The army and judiciary’s increasing influence on the country’s politics coincides with the removal of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last year, following a scandal about unexplained wealth. Fractious civil-military relations could delay the polls or prolong the period of caretaker rule, with unresolved legal disputes over constituency changes complicating matters further. The military’s disapproval of pro-Sharif coverage is reportedly behind the suspension of broadcasts by Pakistan’s most popular media group.

India’s national polls could come as soon as late 2018, six months earlier than originally planned. Since becoming prime minister, Narendra Modi has been unusually willing to personally support his party’s relentless federal state assembly campaigns. A snap national election overlapping with the last three state elections could be his best chance of securing power in both national houses of parliament, even if he falls short of absolute majorities.

Kashmir’s fraying ceasefire

Assuming two stable governments are sworn in with policy action plans, a pattern of simultaneous electoral seasons could give India’s and Pakistan’s next leaders the chance to transact clear of electoral politics.

But such hopes might be dashed by the dismal and generally worsening state of bilateral relations between the two neighbours, which have crumbled since Modi paid a historic surprise visit to Sharif on his birthday in December 2015. Deadly, deep cross-border attacks by Pakistani militants on Indian army facilities in Kashmir’s Pathankot and Uri (2016), Sumbal (2017) and Sunjuwan (2018) areas have sparked increasingly aggressive retaliation against Pakistan army positions across the heavily militarised border.

India–Pakistan tit-or-tat is hard to track given the potential for each side to deny its actions. But 2017 undoubtedly saw a peak in breaches of the two countries’ decade-old informal ceasefire (an even higher number of breaches are expected this year). In 2016 new ground was broken when India admitted for the first time to using special forces to destroy ‘militant launchpads’ behind the border. India denies one of its nationals held by Pakistan is a spy. And the latest Pakistan–Afghanistan roadmap proscribed the ‘use of their respective territories by any country’, a nod to now routine Pakistani allegations that India uses Afghanistan to destabilise its rival.

Substantive India–Pakistan bilateral dialogue has been suspended for over five years. Diplomat-led talks last took place in 2016. The hiatus appears open-ended. A decade after the November 2008 Mumbai attacks which killed 166 people, India insists on talking only in a ‘terror-free’ environment. Pakistan forgoes preconditions, putting the onus on Modi’s India, whose South-Asia-minus-one neighbourhood policy is an unprecedented ostracising of Pakistan.

Both sides boost missile threats

India and Pakistan’s public statements have increased each side’s disbelief of the other’s defence doctrine, including the two nations’ positions on the use of nuclear force. A continuing arms race in certain technologies and equipment also reflects both countries’ anxiety at the ever-growing economic and military gap with their respective larger neighbours – India looks nervously to China, Pakistan to India. Both believe technology can be used to preserve deterrence stability while narrowing capability gaps, and punish the other side’s provocations without retaliation.

Given their limited budgets, the two neighbours rely on their nuclear armouries to provide strategic deterrence. In 2016, India commissioned its first indigenous nuclear-propelled submarine with the potential to carry nuclear missiles. Since 2015, Pakistan has tested four new missile designs: an extended-range low-yield nuclear-capable rocket; a ballistic missile capable of reaching ‘every inch’ of India; a multiple warhead prototype and an underwater-launched cruise missile. Both countries continue to expand their stocks of military fissile material.

A crisis of the magnitude of the Mumbai attacks is unlikely in the coming months. But the potential for events that spark an unintentional, uncontrolled ratcheting up of tensions is worrying, particularly an incident leading to sizeable Indian civilian deaths. The influence of social media would make jingoism, already high before polling season, even harder to tame. Under Modi, Indians no longer expect a policy of benign neglect towards Pakistan. Pakistan warns another Indian ‘surgical strike’, such as that which followed the 2016 Uri terror attack, would not be played down this time.

The influence of China and the US

The region’s growing tensions may not attract the focus of major powers already managing proliferation crises in North Korea and Iran, tensions between Russia and the West, and the emerging United States–China trade dispute. All United Nations Security Council permanent members are nuclear-weapon states steeped in the rituals of past India–Pakistan emergencies.

But this time the Trump administration may be unwilling or unable to facilitate de-escalation, given Pakistani distrust with current US policy on Afghanistan and Washington’s support for India’s ‘Indo-Pacific’ response to China. Russia and China are deepening their security ties with much of the region outwith India, although Moscow remains one of the top suppliers of arms to New Delhi. Beijing has a history of overlooking its alliance with Pakistan and calling for restraint – but now has a ballooning portfolio of investments in the country. Pakistan has new reasons for both risk-avoidance and risk-taking.

Pakistan’s National Security Advisor reportedly spoke with his Indian counterpart days ago, and has also met with the Indian ambassador. But even if ‘a level of dialogue is taking place’, in the words of the region’s top US diplomat, such interactions are not enough.

A way forward

Neither side can bet on a unilateral softening of policy by their neighbour until mid-2019. But with major powers as witnesses, they can take ad hoc unilateral, coordinated steps. It is possible to unilaterally communicate ceilings for use of military force in Kashmir, including rules of engagement. And it is in the national interest for ministers, military officials and electoral or other campaigners to refrain from provocative rhetoric. Governments can also privately exchange assessments of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which threatens to upset the delicate balance in Kashmir.

Finally, New Delhi and Islamabad can encourage national discussion of turn-key technical steps – like establishing a nuclear risk reduction centre – which would allow leaders to bypass political preconditions, regardless of their domestic political capital. India and Pakistan still exchange a yearly list of critical facilities. Each can widen their understanding of their own command and control infrastructure needing particular consideration during military action, by designating facilities used to communicate with submarines or relating to deterrence in the cyber domain.

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