India’s Choice: Opt For National Honor Or National Interest?
How to get out of the tit-for-tat pattern of past India-Pak encounters
November 3, 2016
The killing of sleeping soldiers at Uri on September 18 revolted me. Soldiers are ready to give their lives in battle, but they don’t expect to die while asleep in peacetime.
For ten days, I felt uneasy and angry about this terrorist act. Then, on September 29, India retaliated with “surgical strikes” against terrorist camps across the border in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
When emotions get the upper hand
With that act, like many other Indians, I calmed down. I felt that somehow that justice had been done and the nation’s honor had been restored.
I am now convinced that India’s national interest was also furthered by the surgical strikes.
However, as I think back to my feelings during those intervening ten days, I realise that I was wrong in being guided by emotions of revenge, honour, and “justice.”
Beware of the revenge motivation
Revenge is a sort of wild justice that runs in the human heart. If a good person suffers, then the bad one must suffer even more—this idea is embedded in our psyche.
Of course, consciously we deny it, proclaiming, “I’m not that sort of person.” Yet, unconsciously one applauds when a villain gets his due.
We love happy endings in movies and novels for this reason. Revenge fulfils a legitimate human need, bringing profound moral equilibrium to our hearts.
But nations cannot afford to act like flawed human beings.
That is why political thinkers, beginning with Machiavelli, and strategists like Metternich in the 19th century, formulated theories of national interest.
They argued that if nations were to act according to cold-blooded calculations of their own interest, adversaries could predict their reactions and this would not lead to a more stable, peaceful world.
A wise Indian prime minister
India’s Prime Minister Modi appears to act instinctively like a pupil of Machiavelli and Metternich. In an inspiring speech at Kozikode on September 24, he presented a fine formulation of India’s national interest.
He said that India’s interest lay in creating jobs, wiping out poverty and illiteracy. And he told the people of Pakistan: “Let’s see who wins…who is able to defeat poverty and illiteracy first, Pakistan or India.”
Modi also offered a vision of the subcontinent as a developed, prosperous society. Considerations of national honor, he suggested, run against the national interest of both India and Pakistan.
The right balance in support of the national interest
The September 29 surgical strikes have furthered India’s national interest. They have smashed the conventional wisdom that crossing the line of control (LOC) would inevitably escalate into war, eventually a nuclear war.
Pakistan has always been eager to promote this myth. And India has tended to buy it wholesale. Hence, our country has always become paralyzed after each terrorist attack.
Even after the terrible Mumbai attack in 2008, India responded only by cancelling talks. This emboldened Pakistan to carry out more terror attacks.
The surgical strikes that were undertaken at the end of last month across the LOC have given a different signal. There will be heavy costs to future terrorism.
Pakistan’s curiously measured response
And what did Pakistan do? It certainly did not strike back. Rather, it chose an option that appears surreal only the surface.
By denying that there had been surgical strikes undertaken by India, Pakistan in effect behaved rationally and de-escalated the conflict. If it had retaliated, this would have led to a war.
India helped its neighbor by not making the videos public. This enabled the Pakistani public to believe its government’s version, which in turn reduced the pressures resting on its leadership to escalate.
This response has broken a second myth: an irrational Pakistani leadership itching for war.
Modi plays multi-dimensional chess
It helps greatly that the Indian prime minister spent so much of his early time in office developing a secure footing, along with fine-tuning valuable partnerships in foreign affairs.
And so it is that Modi’s other moves, already undertaken prior to the surgical strikes have all added to a sense of unease in a complacent Pakistani leadership.
The web of actions that Modi unfolded include a rethink on the use of Indus waters, Most Favoured Nation trading status and a SAARC without Pakistan.
These moves have reinforced in Pakistani minds that they are dealing with a different India. We are no longer playing one-dimensional chess, as the Pakistanis would like us to continue doing.
Instead, we now engage in multi-dimensional chess, with much of the world and a broad range of issues.
Message to Pakistan
The message from all this to our Western neighbor is that we Indians may not succumb to nuclear blackmail in future.
This is not to say that Pakistan will not respond to the surgical strikes. It will and soon. But the odds are that it is getting the new message from Delhi.
If that interpretation is correct, Pakistan’s response will be calibrated and rational — not mad escalation, as we once believed.
Pakistan is a military state whose narrative of humiliation and hatred fuels its identity. That is unfortunate, but also the reality.
Pakistan, stuck in the pathway of a religious state and a tribal society, will always be tempted by blood lust, revenge and national honor.
India, however, must never stoop to its level. To do so, we must always choose national interest over national honor.
This will not be easy because revenge and honour fulfil a legitimate human need, bringing profound moral equilibrium to our hearts. But India has no choice because it needs peace to fulfil its manifest destiny.
Revenge fulfils a legitimate human need. But nations cannot afford to act like flawed human beings.
Considerations of national honor run against the national interest of both India and Pakistan.
The surgical strikes India undertook have given a different signal. There will be heavy costs to future terrorism.
Modi has wisely developed a secure footing, along with fine-tuning valuable partnerships in foreign affairs.