Navigating domestic opinion and foreign policy
Pakistan exercises our minds far too much given that China is a much bigger threat to India
The terrorist attack in Pulwama and the Indian airstrikes in Balakot have brought the Pakistan problem back into Indian drawing rooms. However, wise men like Shyam Saran and Sharat Sabharwal, former diplomats, have cautioned that India should not lose sight of the bigger threat, that is, China. The border with China, though disputed, has not witnessed kinetic action in decades now. The Pakistan border, on the other hand, has seen war, infiltrations and many low level terrorist attacks in the last three decades. Two questions now stare at us. First, why is China then the bigger threat? And, second, if it is indeed the bigger threat, why does Pakistan occupy so much mind space of both the people and the policymakers in India?
In a 1985 paper, Stephen Walt, one of the leading lights of international relations theory, posited four factors that make one state a threat to another. They are: a) aggregate power; b) proximity; c) offensive capabilities; and d) offensive intentions. Based on these four factors, it is very clear that China, by far, represents the biggest threat to India. Its overall level of power and capabilities far exceed that of India. Pakistan, on the other hand, is far behind.
Why does then Pakistan exercise our minds so much? It clearly enjoys higher salience among Indian people. The salience itself is a function of four India-Pakistan wars, destabilisation in Kashmir and scores of terrorist attacks across India. The history of partition and the reality of Hindu-Muslim politics in India give Pakistan the extra room in domestic political battles. The shared identities, when juxtaposed with divergent political ideologies, intensify the rivalries between the two countries, some experts argue. Not everyone agrees. Bharat Karnad, a renowned conservative strategist, for instance, contends that “the intermeshed sociocultural and political milieu” is the reason why the two countries have waged only “gentlemanly wars”, which haven’t ever escalated into a “war of annihilation”.
In any case, the argument that Pakistan enjoys higher salience than any other foreign and defence policy issue in India remains uncontested. In a recent paper, titled “Democratic Accountability and Foreign Security Policy: Theory and Evidence from India”, two US-based scholars, Vipin Narang and Paul Staniland, conclude that Indian political leaders are responsive to those foreign security policy issues which enjoy high salience and where the responsibility can be clearly pinned to a leader or a government. Since 1947, Pakistan has almost always satisfied both the criteria and hence has been attended to with alacrity by the political executive. China, on the other hand, enjoyed high salience only in the early 1960s. This paper gives an opportunity to not just understand the importance of Pakistan policy to Indian domestic politics but also unpack why some foreign policy issues impose greater accountability norms than others.
Narang and Staniland have done well to differentiate between different regime types. They have also acknowledged that their criteria — of salience and clarity of responsibility — are flexible and can change with time or be manipulated by suave political operators. However, we need to understand a little more about democratic accountability itself. Governments may face accountability at the hands of not just the electorate but also political elites. The pressure from political elites ensured VK Krishna Menon’s resignation from the defence ministry after the disaster of 1962 India-China war but he was later elected to Lok Sabha twice as an independent candidate.
In another example, the Manmohan Singh government almost lost power on account of going ahead with a civil nuclear deal with the US, an issue that hardly had any salience with the Indian electorate. India-US relations, in particular, offer an interesting case study. In all the surveys conducted so far, the US comes out as the most favourable country among Indian people. Yet, successive Indian governments have been hesitant in moving forward with the US on various issues of bilateral cooperation. The reason is that the US relationship has enjoyed high salience among the Indian political elites. The Singh government at the time of the nuclear deal was in alliance with Communist parties, which staunchly oppose closer India-US relations.
Another problem with the framework established by Narang and Staniland is that it implicitly assumes that political leaders are perfectly aware of the issues which carry salience with the electorate. During the domestic debate on the India-US nuclear deal, for instance, MK Pandhe of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), warned the Samajwadi Party that supporting the deal would harm the latter’s Muslim votebank. There is no evidence that Indian Muslims are any less desirous of better India-US relations than other social groups. A large nationally representative survey carried out in 2009 by Devesh Kapur, another US-based scholar, did not find any statistical difference on sentiments towards the US between states with different levels of Muslim population.
On Pakistan, however, the political leaders have their fingers on the pulse of the people. All surveys, including the one by Kapur and global agencies like Pew, have repeatedly found Pakistan to be the most unpopular country among Indians, far ahead of China. The body bags of soldiers clearly create their own impact while threat from China seems distant and exaggerated. The challenge for the Indian political leadership is to be sensitive to the public opinion, while at the same time preparing India for the bigger threat in China.