After last week’s terrorist attack on an Indian military base in Uri, Kashmir, which resulted in the deaths of 18 soldiers, a debate over how to respond has ripped through India’s strategic community. For the time being, the Indian Prime Minister appears to have signaled a restrained course, but additional measures could be considered and the debate will surely continue. Three points of conventional wisdom have already begun to crystallize. All of them seem to tilt India towards military action.
The first point is that the Narendra Modi government will pay a high political cost if it chooses not to pursue military action. The second is that India’s credibility and prestige will be damaged if it does not make good on previous threats to retaliate. The third is a diagnosis that the root of India’s vulnerability is its lack of options to punish terrorist organizations and Pakistan, which the Indian government accuses of sponsoring the attack.
In fact, all three arguments are erroneous, exaggerated, or incomplete. If the Modi government opts for a military response, it will be neglecting the wisdom of past Indian Prime Ministers, who recognized the costs of a risky, destabilizing crisis dwarf the scant political, reputational, and coercive effects.
First, conventional wisdom exaggerates the political costs of opting for a non-military response. Several analysts have promoted a narrative of intense social, political, and electoral pressures compelling the Modi government to take some sort of military action to back up commitments he made on the campaign trail two years ago. An editorial in the Times of India even described a political and security establishment “baying for blood.” Most of these arguments also note the pressure emanating from social media, which only 16 percent of Indians use, or cite unscientific online polls. However, there is scant empirical evidence that Modi would suffer domestic political fallout if he refused to respond militarily.
Even if Indians are angry today, they won’t necessarily be when they go surveyed expressed fear, anger, a desire for tough measures and a belief that the ruling Congress Party was “soft on terror.” A plurality believed that BJP leaders were better equipped to handle terrorism and pledged to vote for them in general elections. Nevertheless, by May 2009, the incumbent Congress-led coalition won a landslide victory for a second term.
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