Experts in international security view the latent India-Pakistani conflict as potentially one of the most dangerous worldwide. India and Pakistan desperately need to build a lasting peace, and must avoid further friction. Enter Modi, the newly elected prime minister of India. Modi, as president, is a potential nightmare for those hoping for a better relationship between India and Pakistan. This is mainly because of Modi’s controversial role in the 2002 massacre of Muslims in Gujarat, which happened while he was the region’s Chief Minister.
The problem is that popular opinion among Pakistan’s political elites is that India just elected a prime minister who is responsible for systemically killing Muslims. Therefore Pakistan’s leadership is likely not only to mistrust Modi, but also to grow increasingly hostile towards the Indian population as a whole. In Pakistan, growing mistrust equals growing military influence, since the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) has historically always been able to use crisis atmospheres to increase their power. Between the US using drones in northern Pakistan with only partial permission from the Pakistani government, India turning to Hindu nationalism, and a failure to effectively eliminate domestic Taliban groups from ruling parts of Pakistan’s periphery, the ISI is bound to take charge sooner or later.
Furthermore, ISI’s growing influence is made even more likely by the fact that Pakistan’s current prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has spoken in favor of the ISI, where other Pakistani presidents have usually tried to decrease its power. The fact that Pakistan’s prime minister has chosen to attend Modi’s inauguration means very little in terms of the realpolitik of the region.
The ISI taking charge means that there will be a focus on the expansion of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. This thought is worrisome, because Pakistan does not handle its nuclear arsenal responsibly and nuclear weapons therefore could fall in the hands of Taliban insurgent groups. While these groups lack the delivery system to take full advantage of these nuclear weapons, they could easily make a so-called “dirty bomb” out of them, and use a low-tech delivery system, such as a truck, to deploy where they see fit (most likely in India).
Increased ISI power would most likely also mean increased government funding for non-state actors. The ISI likes to use these as proxies to fight for their interests in Kashmir, especially Lashkar-e-Taiba (or simply Lashkar). However, these groups are loose cannons, and are likely to attack not just under ISI direction, but also autonomously. Thus, Lashkar was responsible for the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, an attack contrary to the interest of Pakistan, because it served only to destabilize the India-Pakistani relationship, and cause India to increase their domestic security spending. Finally, more power to the ISI means less focus on the domestic development of infrastructure that Pakistan so desperately needs.
If ISI gains power India will be likely to increase its military and national security spending. Modi has already signaled this. This in turn is likely to trigger a reaction from China, who is likely to do the same. Xi Jinping has proven to be a military hard-liner, and is therefore likely to react more to India’s potential military expansion than his predecessor, Hu Jintao. This has been apparent in China’s aggressive posture in its claim to the so-called “nine-dotted line.” Increased military spending would likely make Japan uneasy, resulting in increased spending on the Japanese “coast guard.” Furthermore, increased China spending would likely also threaten Taiwan, leading to US involvement. These events would therefore have the potential to lead to a vicious circle, and trigger a security dilemma in Asia. The hostility could then fester and lead to an Asian Cold War.
Of course this is a worst-case scenario, but this does not mean that it is unrealistic. Should this worst-case scenario play out; there is no easy solution. The conclusion to all of this is that India’s election of Modi is a game-changer, and professionals in foreign policy should immediately start contemplating how to deescalate what might quickly become a very sticky situation in Asia.