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India’s Pakistan Policy in Last Decade

india pakistan


It will be cliché to repeat here that one cannot choose their neighbour. So is the case with the omnipresence of Pakistan in India’s foreign policy discussion. According to K. Natwar Singh, India’s former foreign secretary, the India– Pakistan relationship is ‘chronically accident prone’ for Pakistan is too changeable and unpredictable which makes normalisation impossible. Yet, the social constructivists maintain their hope, but the realist tries to leave Pakistan behind.

In this article, we will -see the developments in the Indian approach towards Pakistan in the last ten years, along with diverse theoretical explanations used to explain the relations between the two countries.

Theories and Explanations

Sumit Ganguly, in his book ‘The Origins of War in South Asia’, gives three structural factors responsible for never-ending conflicts between India and Pakistan: ‘the messy nature of the British colonial disengagement policy, the ideological commitments of the leaderships of India and Pakistan, and the strength of the irredentist/anti-irredentist relationship (about Kashmir) between the two countries influenced at various times by other situational factors (immediate political compulsions)’.

The most frequently and easy-to-use theory to explain Indo-Pak relations is that of realism. But in the place of realism, E. Sridharan has used the concept of ‘subaltern realism’ given by Mohammad Ayoob. It is a post-colonial international theory which believes that mainstream IR theories cannot be applied to third-world countries. Subaltern realism conceptualizes, that for third-world countries the world is not defined by anarchy but hierarchy, and that international relations are not separate from internal happenings but instead are an extension. 

Similarly, Barry Buzan and Ole Waever argue that there is a lot of continuity in domestic, regional and global levels of security dynamics. The regional security complex theory (RSCT), as it is called, provides a conceptual framework that gives importance to regional actors. It unambiguously establishes the fact that rather than being the mechanical reflection of the distribution of power, regional systems are dependent on the actions and interpretations of actors. Domestic disputes are exported to the international system by the state-making process, which also interacts with the dynamics of regional balances, global power rivalry, and international standards. Such export occurs because state elites view advantageous regional balances as crucial to the success of their state-building enterprise, especially given that this activity is typically carried out concurrently by surrounding states. 

Lastly, Professor Kanti Bajpai believes that in India three lenses can be seen in use to look at Pakistan; the Nehruvian lens, the neo-liberal lens and the hyperrealist lens. We will see how the transition takes place between these three in the article.

Ten Years in Brief

After winning the 2014 election, the BJP which is known for its strong stand against Pakistan, invited the then-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif along with the leaders of other South Asian countries. this was seen as a major step towards building a constructive relationship. Further in 2015, PM Modi paid an unscheduled visit to Nawaz Sharif in Lahore on his way back from Afghanistan. This showed the new government’s ability to take ‘big political risks’ for making India-Pakistan relations better.

However, this bonhomie did not continue as structural constraints often limited the government’s options.

On 2nd January 2016, some Pakistani terrorists attacked the Pathankot airbase. Even then India was reluctant to break off the dialogue process. But no substantial action was taken by the Pakistani government. 

In the same year, India had to suffer from the Uri attack in which nineteen Indian soldiers were killed. Reacting to the Uri attacks, the Indian government promised that the perpetrators of the attack would be punished. On 29 September 2016, ten days after the attack the government announced that it had carried out raids, termed as ‘surgical strikes’, on camps in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK), where terrorists were allegedly being trained to carry out attacks in India. In order to avoid an escalation in hostilities, the Indian army asserted that ‘operations aimed at neutralising terrorists have since ceased.

The policy of ‘surgical strikes’ marked a fundamental shift in India’s approach towards Pakistan sending the strong message of zero tolerance towards terror attacks.

Not only this, India also boycotted the 2016 SAARC summit scheduled in Pakistan and was supported by Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan. This boycott secluded Pakistan as India started focusing and promoting BIMSTEC whose leaders were also invited to the BRICS outreach summit in Goa in 2016. 

In 2019, India suffered another attack in the Pulwama district of Jammu and Kashmir, this time too it responded with Balakot airstrike. The airstrike was seen as an attempt by the Modi administration to reinterpret the level of deterrence that exists between Pakistan and India. India also had global sentiments on its side and it geared up its diplomatic efforts to get JeM chief Masood Azhar branded as a global terrorist. The progress was marked by China lifting its veto on the same.

Further in August 2019, India gave Pakistan a jolt by announcing the abrogation of Article 370. The state of Jammu and Kashmir was divided into two union territories; Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. And when New Delhi invited the BIMSTEC leaders for Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in May 2019, it marked a clear shift in India’s neighbourhood diplomacy. 

The Olds and the New(s)

Modi’s Pakistan policy seems to have two components: bilateral diplomacy and coalition diplomacy. The bilateral approach can be seen as alternating between engaging in dialogue and disengaging from it; in game theory, it is called; cooperation and defection.

Unlike Manmohan Singh who completely disengaged from the talks after the 2008 attacks, Modi has made a consistent effort to participate and take the lead. He has also shown no reluctance to back down when Pakistan has demanded that the talks centre on the Kashmir conflict rather than terrorism, or when artillery fire or terrorist attacks have come from over the border into India. 

Apart from engaging in cooperate-and-defect bilateral diplomacy, Delhi has endeavoured to exert anti-terrorism pressure on a coalition of states, which includes Pakistan’s Gulf neighbours. The aim to centre India-Pakistan dialogue around terrorism lies at the core of Modi’s endeavours. This strategy contradicts India’s stance from the 1990s, which was predicated on an agreement with Pakistan that the two nations would discuss terrorism and Kashmir together.

As per Prof. Bajpai’s analysis, India has had its neo-liberal approach with Pakistan. India has always been eager to strengthen economic ties with its immediate and extended neighbours and to deepen bilateral and multilateral collaboration as the region’s most significant economic force. It is a component of its Neighbourhood First strategy, which calls for prioritising relations with bordering nations over economic and developmental concerns. Prime Minister Modi highlighted the region’s lack of infrastructure during the 18th SAARC summit in Kathmandu, but he also almost cried as he described how Indian businesses were investing billions abroad but less than 1% of their total external investments in the region. The SAARC Regional Agreement on Railways and Regulation of Passenger and Cargo Vehicular Traffic in South Asia was not ratified by Pakistan. There is no doubt that New Delhi’s strategy towards Islamabad incorporates certain neoliberal ideas, but there is no sign that it is giving up bilateralism as a means of resolving unresolved issues.

In the recent past, the hyper-realists have gained an upper hand in influencing India’s Pakistan policy and Nehruvians as well as neoliberals are being pushed into a tight corner. 

India is left playing a largely reactive role as a result of Pakistan’s broken civil-military relations and consequently unclear political future. In line with Ayoob’s subaltern realism emphasis on state-making processes as a cause of conflict, Buzan’s claim that territorial disputes like Kashmir are not simply territorial but also represent political tension coming from history. Post-independence, Pakistan and India have been actively engaged in building very different states and nations. One is an Islamic state for the subcontinent’s Muslims, an explicitly ethno-religious state, and the other is a secular, multicultural state that rejects the two-nation theory.

The logic of hostility and the establishment of states and nations founded on opposing values plays out in accordance with the realist logic of equipping oneself for defence once a conflict has been locked in from birth. It follows the logic of nuclear deterrence over time and after nuclear capabilities have been established, albeit in a non-weaponized and then recessed form and with a concentration on each other, while tacitly accepting inferiority within the global order and especially vis-à-vis China. India and Pakistan are so systemically dangerous to one another. While Pakistan’s subcontinental Muslim nationalism threatens India with the secession of Kashmir, India’s secular federalism threatens Pakistan with fragmentation or absorption.


It is clear that the Balakot crisis in February 2019 marked a turning point in bilateral relations because New Delhi ramped up its reaction in both vertical and horizontal directions. The Pakistani security establishment has always held the solid conviction that India is unlikely to respond with conventional or nuclear retaliation provided its militant proxies restrict their hostilities to a sub-conventional level. However, India’s response to the incident in Pulwama suggests that New Delhi’s tolerance for irregular violence is waning.

As the concept of subaltern realism explains to us, unless Pakistan’s internal conflicts and its skewed civil-military relations will not improve, India will have to take a hard stance for its own security.


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