H is for Hawk

In an Indian Express op-ed on 11 January, political scientist Paul Staniland argues that we shouldn’t lose too much sleep over Pathankot-style terror strikes because “despite understandable public outcry and past success, these spoiler attacks will be increasingly ineffective for the Pakistani military and its non-state allies”.

One reason for this, he argues, is that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s nationalist stance ensures that “no national party can make a politically potent case against [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi as being too soft on Pakistan. His domestic room to manoeuvre would be the envy of past PMs”. As a result, Modi will be free to pursue a rapprochement with Pakistan if he so wishes.

The temptation to slot the BJP, the Indian National Congress and other parties as hawkish or dovish is understandable, but it conceals as much as it reveals. For one, even though the BJP’s rhetoric tends to be more hardline than the Congress’, at the present time it is under attack from the Congress party and others as being excessively soft on Pakistan.

More to the point, the hawk-dove continuum exists within each political party, and places limits on how accommodating their leaders can be. Consider two examples:

  1. During a six-day visit to Pakistan in 2005, then BJP President Lal Krishna Advani praised Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah and described him as a “secular” leader. This caused a furore in the BJP, forcing him to resign, and leading to his replacement as president by Rajnath Singh later that year.
  2. In July 2009, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed a joint statement with his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani in Sharm el-Sheikh that delinked progress in other areas with terrorism and seemed to acknowledge Pakistani claims of Indian interference in Balochistan. Coming only eight months after the deadly Mumbai attacks, the statement appeared to undermine India’s earlier stance. Many Congress party members were outraged and refused to defend their own prime minister against public criticism. With no support visible in his party, Singh backtracked and the bilateral dialogue languished for the remainder of his term.

The point is that nationalist attitudes permeate many Indian parties and impose limits on how far and fast their leaderships can move. I have no doubt that Modi, like Advani, would discover those limits pretty quickly if he bent too far backwards in accommodating Pakistani concerns.

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