Why the India-Pakistan Rivalry Endures

A recent book emphasizes domestic politics in the conflict but doesn’t account for the depth of the impasse.

Ganguly-Sumit-foreign-policy-columnist8
Ganguly-Sumit-foreign-policy-columnist8
Sumit Ganguly
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
An Indian soldier and Pakistani soldier shake hands.
An Indian soldier and Pakistani soldier shake hands.
An Indian soldier and Pakistani soldier shake hands during a ceremony to celebrate Pakistan’s independence at the India-Pakistan border near Amritsar, India, on Aug. 14. NARINDER NANU/AFP via Getty Images

India and Pakistan have mostly been at odds since 1947, when both emerged as independent countries after decades of British rule. The two states fought a war in that year—and three more in the years since, in 1965, 1971, and 1999. (Their fleeting cooperation was largely confined to the 1950s.) The most recent crisis between New Delhi and Islamabad took place three years ago, following a terrorist attack in Indian-administered Kashmir; India followed with an aerial attack in Pakistan, leading to retaliation from Islamabad.

As that crisis underscored, the India-Pakistan relationship has deteriorated significantly in the last decade, especially following the election of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014. This decline stems in part from Pakistan’s continued dalliance with anti-Indian terrorist organizations, an unstated component of its national security strategy. In response, the Modi government has adopted an unyielding stance. India’s decision in 2019 to unilaterally rescind the special autonomous status of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir further undermined bilateral ties. Any recent progress in the relationship—such as India’s humanitarian gestures in the wake of devastating floods in Pakistan this year—has been largely cosmetic.

A new book by Indian scholar Surinder Mohan takes a multilayered approach to the India-Pakistan relationship, eschewing well-worn explanations—including those based in the tradition of realism, which emphasizes material power. Complex Rivalry: The Dynamics of India-Pakistan Conflict argues that the enmity between the two countries traces to a unique jumble of factors, beginning with the shock of the Partition of India; tensions have been further intensified by ideology, a shared border, and disputed territory. However, the book has a few shortcomings that limit its insights into the future of the India-Pakistan rivalry, most notably its failure to directly acknowledge the primacy of the Pakistani military establishment in the country’s politics.

India and Pakistan have mostly been at odds since 1947, when both emerged as independent countries after decades of British rule. The two states fought a war in that year—and three more in the years since, in 1965, 1971, and 1999. (Their fleeting cooperation was largely confined to the 1950s.) The most recent crisis between New Delhi and Islamabad took place three years ago, following a terrorist attack in Indian-administered Kashmir; India followed with an aerial attack in Pakistan, leading to retaliation from Islamabad.

As that crisis underscored, the India-Pakistan relationship has deteriorated significantly in the last decade, especially following the election of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014. This decline stems in part from Pakistan’s continued dalliance with anti-Indian terrorist organizations, an unstated component of its national security strategy. In response, the Modi government has adopted an unyielding stance. India’s decision in 2019 to unilaterally rescind the special autonomous status of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir further undermined bilateral ties. Any recent progress in the relationship—such as India’s humanitarian gestures in the wake of devastating floods in Pakistan this year—has been largely cosmetic.

A new book by Indian scholar Surinder Mohan takes a multilayered approach to the India-Pakistan relationship, eschewing well-worn explanations—including those based in the tradition of realism, which emphasizes material power. Complex Rivalry: The Dynamics of India-Pakistan Conflict argues that the enmity between the two countries traces to a unique jumble of factors, beginning with the shock of the Partition of India; tensions have been further intensified by ideology, a shared border, and disputed territory. However, the book has a few shortcomings that limit its insights into the future of the India-Pakistan rivalry, most notably its failure to directly acknowledge the primacy of the Pakistani military establishment in the country’s politics.

Mohan acknowledges that India and Pakistan each embraced power politics, accepting the utility of force—or the threat of force—to settle their bilateral relations as independent states. However, unlike realist scholars, who focus almost exclusively on power asymmetries, he argues that domestic politics also contributed to the start of the rivalry—and have sustained it. The terrible fallout of Partition, with more than 1 million people dead and 10 million displaced, became closely intertwined with the domestic politics of both India and Pakistan. Because the status of Kashmir remains unreconciled for both parties, political leaders fixated on the territorial dispute.

Early on, the Pakistani leadership’s obsession with the Kashmir dispute led it to draw in the United States to balance India’s power. In 1954, the Eisenhower administration gave in to these entreaties and signed a defense pact with Pakistan. Emboldened by these new military capabilities acquired from the United States, Pakistan initiated a war with India in 1965. During these years, the dispute over Kashmir and the involvement of great powers deepened the rivalry—which became more salient in domestic politics, culminating in another war in 1971. Here, Mohan doesn’t offer much new analysis, covering familiar ground for regional specialists.

Mohan’s discussions of the role of both internal and external shocks in sustaining the India-Pakistan rivalry are more illuminating. After the 1971 war, India’s preponderant military role in the subcontinent contributed to ragged regional stability: No Pakistani regime considered provoking India for nearly two decades, largely due to asymmetries of power. However, Mohan argues that India’s attempts to meddle in Kashmir’s internal politics contributed to an insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir in 1989—a shock that gave Pakistan a window of opportunity. As Islamabad entered the fray through covert backing for the rebels, the insurgency was transformed from a domestic uprising into a civil war with religious inspiration and external support.

From this perspective, Pakistan’s ongoing political and economic crisis might have some effect on the rivalry with India. In April, the ouster of Prime Minister Imran Khan threw the country’s politics into turmoil, making a renewal of dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad even more unlikely. The country’s opposition leader seems intent on harassing—and distracting—the civilian government through public rallies and street protests. There is little reason to believe that the appointment of Pakistan’s new Army chief, former spymaster Asim Munir, will pacify the fraught relationship. Meanwhile, the economy is buckling under the weight of heavy debt and massive inflation.

However, Mohan does not offer a fresh approach to the India-Pakistan rivalry or to reducing tensions that accounts for the fraught domestic politics in both states at the moment. He draws on theoretical literature to outline a possible pathway for the countries to end their dispute, but his suggestions are diffuse and somewhat didactic. Mohan suggests that as a first step, Indian and Pakistani elites could take risks in promoting de-escalation—moves that could lead to an eventual end to the rivalry. But he fails to spell out what incentives either side has to undertake such risky ventures or what those risky ventures might look like in the first place.

Finally, the principal drawback of Complex Rivalry is that it fails to forthrightly confront two related issues that still play a crucial role in India-Pakistan tensions. Mohan alludes to the appropriate literature—most notably, Maya Tudor’s scholarship on the subject—but he does not adequately address the initial weakness of Pakistan’s civilian political institutions. Their anemic features and inability to maintain order from the outset led to the second issue: the authoritarian bureaucratic-military nexus that came to the fore in the absence of robust civilian institutions.

Forged in the late 1950s, this alliance between the military and an elitist bureaucracy has remained a constant in Pakistan’s domestic politics. Even after the Pakistan Army was morally discredited by its egregious role in the 1971 war—a genocidal campaign against Bengali dissidents in East Pakistan—it managed to regroup and restore its central role in domestic politics. More to the point, Pakistan’s military has consistently exaggerated the security threat from India, largely to bolster its own interests. The military has aggrandized so much power that it has become a first among equals within Pakistan’s domestic political sphere.

This military establishment now confronts an intransigent adversary in New Delhi. Modi, an unabashed exponent of Hindu nationalism, sees the conflict through the prism of his own domestic politics: An unyielding stance toward Pakistan plays well with key constituencies at home. Perhaps more than ever, the two sides face a near impasse. Furthermore, the continuing political uncertainty in Pakistan provides Modi a ready-made excuse to avoid taking the initiative to improve ties. As the politics of Hindu nationalism become entrenched in Modi’s India, the possibilities of any meaningful dialogue look increasingly like a mirage.

Books are independently selected by FP editors. FP earns an affiliate commission on anything purchased through links to Amazon.com on this page.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University Bloomington.

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