Let’s examine Modi’s rhetoric for clues.
On February 14, a suicide bomber in Kashmir drove his explosives-filled vehicle into a bus carrying members of India’s paramilitaries, killing over 40 and injuring dozens more. An Islamist terrorist group, Jaish-e-Muhammad — based in Pakistan though nominally banned by the Pakistani government—reportedly took credit for the attack.
India claims the group and its leader, Masood Azhar, have been “given full freedom” by the Pakistani state “to operate and expand [its] terror infrastructure … and to carry out attacks in India and elsewhere with impunity.” Pakistan has offered to help with the investigation—but such offers in earlier attacks led nowhere.
For both India and Pakistan, two countries with nuclear weapons, the stakes are high, as Asfandyar Mir detailed in the Monkey Cage.
National elections loom over India’s response
With national elections likely to take place in April or May, domestic politics will play into how Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi responds to the bombing, perhaps the deadliest attack in the nearly 30-year insurgency in Kashmir. Modi has authorized retaliatory strikes in the past, so he will face substantial pressure to do so again. In response to a 2016 Jaish-e-Muhammad attack in Kashmir that killed 19 Indian soldiers, Indian forces conducted shallow raids into Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
Modi publicly criticized his predecessor, Congress Party’s Manmohan Singh, for not having the “courage” to authorize punitive action after a 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai. The head of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Amit Shah, reemphasized that contrast, saying at a political rally last Sunday: “The sacrifice of the soldiers . . . won’t go in vain. This time the central government is not Congress.”
Perhaps predictably, some of the most heated political rhetoric following the attack has come at campaign rallies in advance of the elections. On Sunday, Modi shared a stage with one of his cabinet ministers, who promised the crowd, “We will take revenge for each and every drop of blood shed” in the attack.
Modi himself has pledged that “every tear that has been shed will be avenged” and that “all those responsible for the terror strike will be identified and acted against — from those who supplied the weapons to those who masterminded the strategy, all will be made to pay the price.”
Does India seek vengeance or Pakistani concessions?
What to make of these promises? What leaders say publicly can determine whether a crisis becomes a war. Modi’s approach seems like a classic “hand-tying” strategy, a way for leaders to make it difficult to avoid taking costly action in the future by staking their reputation on following through on its execution. In making public promises, leaders implicitly invite the audience to punish the leader if they fail to take action. This can generate what political scientist James Fearon terms “audience costs” — when leaders lose political support at home if they escalate a foreign crisis but then back down. The prospect of these audience costs makes it more believable that a leader is willing to bear the costs of having to carry out military threats.
Scholars have proposed audience costs as one way leaders could signal credibility, as empty bluffs will be punished at home. In this light, Pakistan would be more likely to back down knowing that Modi — having promised so much to Indian audiences — was truly serious.
Empty promises or fighting words?
In the crisis, Modi and his officials have emphasized vengeance more than they have requested specific concessions from Pakistan. As economist Thomas Schelling stressed five decades ago, to be effective, a threat must also contain a corresponding assurance that pain can be avoided if the target takes some step. That assurance — basically an off-ramp from the crisis — has been largely absent in Indian officials’ rhetoric.
Perhaps it is bluster? Allan Dafoe and Jessica Weiss propose that domestic audiences reward “tough but vague” statements. And they find that Chinese respondents in survey experiments are willing to reward bluster, even if unaccompanied by subsequent military action.
Modi’s own behavior in 2016 tends to suggest this isn’t merely cheap talk. He assured India then, much as he has promised now, “that those behind this despicable attack will not go unpunished.” The proximity of elections also offers enough time to plan and execute a serious military strike — but not so much time for tempers to calm and memories to fade.
There are also domestic politics on the Pakistani side
If Modi does authorize military strikes, what will Pakistan do?
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has made promises of his own. On Tuesday, he emphasized, “If you think that if you can carry out any kind of attack on Pakistan, Pakistan will not just think about retaliating, we will retaliate.”
In a survey experiment Sameer Lalwani, Niloufer Siddiqui and I carried out in Punjab, Pakistan, last year, we found that respondents were strongly supportive of Pakistani retaliation in the event of limited Indian strikes. Even when we discussed the dangers of nuclear weapons or the costs of war to the Pakistani economy, respondents still preferred leaders who hit back.
There are real concerns about escalation
Once begun, tit-for-tat spirals are inherently dangerous — and almost unheard of between nuclear-armed nations. The losing country has an incentive to escalate, and that makes it difficult to keep a conflict limited. As Carl von Clausewitz observed nearly two centuries ago, this pushes conflict toward extremes.
Pakistan’s strategy, though, is to manipulate nuclear risk — to deploy battlefield nuclear weapons — if it seems as if any conventional military conflict is shifting decisively against it. So far, this nuclear threat has prevented India from using its conventional military superiority to punish Pakistan’s support for anti-India militants.
In just-published research, Vipin Narang and I offer worrisome evidence that Indian officials, increasingly frustrated by Pakistan’s use of nuclear threats to deter Indian conventional retaliation, have started to explore options to attempt to disarm Pakistan before it could ever use its strategic nuclear forces.
Every crisis between India and Pakistan could potentially carry the risk of becoming a nuclear crisis very early, as India considers how to neutralize Pakistani nuclear weapons and Pakistan seeks to avoid that outcome. If Modi authorizes retaliatory strikes in the coming days, the potential risks are enormous.
Christopher Clary is an assistant professor of political science at the University at Albany, State University of New York. More information on his research is available at christopherorenclary.com.