During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union regularly expelled spies in tit-for-tat actions. These expulsions were never about espionage, they were political signalling. A similar pattern has emerged between India and Pakistan.
In textbook spycraft, if you have identified an enemy operative, you try and turn him into a double agent or feed him misleading information. Expulsion kills off a potential source of information and means the replacement has to be identified.
Spy expulsions show to the other side and the public at home the degree of political determination behind a policy. The present Indian action should be seen as part and parcel of the hardening of stances between the two subcontinental rivals over the past two years.
This downward trend has gone further south since the attack on the Uri army base in Kashmir. But the origins seem to lie in the Pakistani military’s anger at India’s provision of lethal weaponry to the Afghan National Army, a general sense in Islamabad that China will cover their back and the recent public protests in Kashmir.
India-Pakistan relations has become an unremitting story of bad if largely symbolic news. India has deliberately wrecked the South Asian regional summit scheduled for Islamabad in December. It has said it will press ahead with barrage and dam construction along rivers covered by the Indus Waters Treaty. The two now cross swords and words at each and every level. These range from the derisory, such as the ban on Pakistani artistes in Indian films, to the dangerous, such as the increased shelling and firing along the Line of Control.
There is still no reason for alarm. The death toll even along the de facto border is a fraction of what compared to what existed before the original Line of Control ceasefire agreement was signed. The global community has declined to involve itself in the present skirmish, curbing any potential Pakistani enthusiasm for widening the confrontation.
However, this is a status quo that is fundamentally unstable. It is a safe bet that the Pakistani military will seek some pay back India for the cross-border raids against militant staging camps. A terrorist attack within India or against Indian facilities in Afghanistan should not be discounted.
With the photo-ops between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif now in abeyance, the diplomatic vacuum that has been created will be filled with the voices of the shrill and short-sighted. The exchange of fire along the LoC is taking a few lives every week and is forcing the evacuation of thousands of villagers.
More to the point, the hardline posture taken by India must ultimately serve a larger national interest in handling Pakistan. At present this interest seems confined largely to the Uttar Pradesh elections.
After they are over, Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to make some longer-term calculations as to where and how he wants to handle the relationship with what one Western intelligence chief told Indian interlocutors was the “neighbour from hell.”