Given his strongman reputation, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi confounded compatriots when he invited Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister of India’s neighbour — and traditional enemy — Pakistan, to his May 2014 swearing-in.
That diplomacy sparked hope that a more upbeat chapter might be opened in the fraught relationship. The optimism grew when Mr Modi — in a bold, personal gesture — made a surprise visit to Mr Sharif’s Lahore home, where the Pakistani leader was celebrating his granddaughter’s wedding.
Yet instead of burying decades of enmity, India and Pakistan are now engaged in a bitter war of words, precipitated by last month’s eruption of mass protests in India’s restive Kashmir Valley, the stunning Himalayan region at the heart of the rivalry between the nuclear-armed neighbours.
Amid the sniping, Mr Modi has also signalled a significant shift in India’s approach to the troublesome neighbour it has long accused of both stoking violent separatist unrest in Kashmir, and seeking to embarrass New Delhi over its difficulties there.
In his nationally-broadcast Independence Day address last week, Mr Modi spoke of personal messages he had received from residents of Pakistan’s troubled Baluchistan province, which has its own long-running separatist movement.
The warning was oblique but unmistakable: if Islamabad causes trouble for New Delhi in Kashmir, India would abandon its restraint and could cause grief for Islamabad in Baluchistan.
His words were a clear break from India’s longstanding attempt to hold the moral high ground in its relations with Islamabad, and thus set South Asian strategic and security analysts on both sides of the border agog.
What is unclear is how far Mr Modi is willing to go to back up his words with actions — or whether India even has the capacity to do so, without risking a dangerous military confrontation.
Yet creating ambiguity and uncertainty — some analysts believe — is precisely the aim, as New Delhi tries to deal with a neighbour that has provided support and protection for terrorists and militants targeting India.
“The point is to keep everyone guessing, including getting others to contemplate the possibility that you might do crazy things,” Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the president of New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research, wrote in the Indian Express. “If you cannot see too much coherence in what we are doing, that is exactly the point. Don’t presume anything about what we might do next.”
The reference to Baluchistan will be noticed in Beijing, which has plans to build ambitious infrastructure projects in Baluchistan though the Pakistani province as part of its strategic goal of building a corridor that will give China access to port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea.
As well as reverberating across the border, Mr Modi’s tough talk is intended for a domestic audience, as New Delhi tries to deflect blame for the current crisis in Kashmir, where at least 66 people have been killed, thousands injured, and most of the population confined to their homes under a strict curfew since early July.
“If you can point to Pakistan as the fundamental cause of the problem, you are exculpating yourself,” said Shashank Joshi, a senior fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute.
If you cannot see too much coherence in what we are doing, that is exactly the point. Don’t presume anything about what we might do next.
– Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research
As the world’s fastest-growing large economy, India aspires to be taken seriously as a “leading” global power. It has long struggled to differentiate its conduct from that of Pakistan, with which it has fought four wars since their simultaneous independence from British rule in 1947.
Mr Modi’s tough talk could backfire by tarnishing India’s image on the international stage. Pakistan, despite scant evidence, already blames India for unrest in Baluchistan and could now find more willing audiences for its claims. “Escalating will hurt India’s position more than Pakistan,” says Mr Joshi. “A more freewheeling India would be seen as less predictable, less reliable and, crucially, less responsible.”
There is another danger for India — that Mr Modi’s government will buy into its own rhetoric and lose sight of the root problem in Kashmir. It is less a matter of foreign meddling than the profound alienation of a people that India insists are its own.
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