Are India and Pakistan, the dramatically unequal but nuclear-armed South Asian neighbours about to go to war? The answer to that question of course has the potential to upset all business plans.
But while everyone expects a flare-up, I want to argue in this essay that in fact India and Pakistan, if certain criteria are met, might be entering a period of stability (even though that might come after a momentary conflict) and not instability.
Why am I arguing this? Well, everyone who has ever intensively studied Pakistan knows that there is a frequently repeated strategic adage about peace-making between the two countries – it says that India and Pakistan have the best chance of achieving a settlement if there is the rule of the Pakistani Army in that country and the rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India. This has been repeated to many foreign policy scholars and journalists over the years. I was first told this by a Pakistani diplomat in New Delhi about a decade ago.
The reason provided is this: the army in Pakistan and the nationalistic BJP in India are both seen as hard-line players on Indo-Pak foreign policy, and as hawks they are less suspected to ever be soft or agree to unreasonable demands of the other by the public-at-large in the two nations. It is assumed by the public that they would be tough negotiators in any India-Pakistan deal.
Therefore, ironically, they would have greater room and leeway to negotiate flexible terms and conditions without fearing public chastisement.
I want to go a layer deeper into this analysis. The Pakistani Army has always been the overt or covert ruler of Pakistan. With Imran Khan as prime minister they also seem to have figured out an arrangement where no general ever needs to be a dictator again in a country which has been ruled by generals for a large part of its independent history. It can work behind the scene to ensure that a government that is most amenable to taking orders from it is put in power.
Now the Pakistani Army sees its battle with India in existential terms – without the animosity with India would the impoverished country allow the army to soak up 3.5% of GDP spend in 2017?
Over the years as the overlap between Islamist militants and the Pakistani Army has grown, there has emerged the narrative of ‘Ghazwa-e-Hind’ or the messianic prediction of a conquest of India by jihadist armies. The narrative spouted by the suicide bomber in the recent attack at Pulwama in Kashmir, for instance, echoed this worldview.
This makes the Pakistani narrative what Game Theory would call an infinite player - versus a regular strategic political actor (or party) which would be a finite player.
What is the difference?
Well, as explained by the New York University professor James P. Carse in his influential book Finite and Infinite Games, the difference is that finite players, and finite games essentially are played within defined rules for set periods of time and for clear strategic goals - this is the sort of thing that a normal political government of any country would do within the sleight and subterfuge of diplomacy.
But an infinite game has no defined rules, indeed the rules keep shifting, and the timeline of the game is infinite. This is the sort of thing that a civilisational war would be.
Now all this sounds apocalyptic, but the interesting thing is that stability can be achieved if there are two finite players or two infinite players. So, a government in Pakistan which is relatively less controlled by the army – for instance the one led by Imran Khan’s predecessor Nawaz Sharif – would be, in this scenario, a finite player.
The thing is, usually, because of the impact of the army and Islamist elements, Pakistan has played the infinite game in its negotiation with India. That’s why every peace overture from a Pakistani government towards India has always been followed, almost immediately, by an army-backed terror attack that seeks to follow the rule of the infinite game – to perpetuate the game itself.
Indian governments, especially in the recent past, have all been finite players, with limited goals of peace in Kashmir or narrow policy goals, and therefore there has been a mismatch between finite and infinite players which has caused instability in the region.
Pakistan has played as if in an infinite game, while India has strategised a finite game. The instability is caused because the infinite side starts to assume that since their opponent is only playing a strategic, short-term game, finite, with patience, infinite patience as it were, they would naturally cave in.
But with the landslide victory of the Hindu nationalist BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, with the backing of its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). The RSS, of course, also sees this war in civilisational terms and is an infinite player.
That there has been a change in status quo is clearly accepted by the Pakistanis whose senate document in October 2016 says, “… not since 1971 has the Indian government gone to the extent of pressuring Pakistan as is being done by the Modi regime”. The reference to 1971 is of the war between India and Pakistan that led to the creation of Bangladesh. It should be recalled that after that war there was period of stability in relations for nearly two decades before insurgency in Kashmir and later a fourth war occurred.
It is yet unclear what kind of conflict might happen between the two countries in the near future, but my argument is that if a strong army-backed government continues in power in Pakistan, and if Modi wins the upcoming 2019 elections, it would propel an era of infinite player versus infinite player in an infinite game where both players would realise that there is no easy victory in sight, and that both sides are ready for an endless continuation of the game.
This realisation would necessitate a new strategy, and, as has been predicted by diplomats on both sides for years, it might even lead to a permanent solution.