At the core of this piece is an exploration of the different ways in which both real and manufactured crises are managed by three large Asian countries that have dominated the headlines throughout 2019.
The key to decoding Indian crisis management is an understanding of the concept of plausible deniability. As India shed its 20th century economic malaise and is now in the process of shedding its old post-Soviet ally, New Delhi has consciously begun presenting an imagine of a country that simultaneously looks south, north, east and west. According to this manifold narrative, India is both an unstoppable emerging economy but simultaneously a victim of supposed aggression and harassment from its two biggest neighbours. Most crucially, India presents itself as both the world’s largest democracy but also presents itself as a country with a near monolithic international mission and domestic apparatus to secure this mission.
“The ability to deny blame because evidence does not exist to confirm responsibility for an action. The lack of evidence makes the denial credible, or plausible. The use of the tactic implies forethought, such as intentionally setting up the conditions to plausibly avoid responsibility for one’s future actions. The term was coined by the CIA in the 1960s to describe the withholding of information from senior officials in order to protect them from repercussions in the event that certain activities by the CIA became public”.
In recent years, particularly under the premiership of Narendra Modi, India has taken its greatest intrinsic disadvantages and turned them into somewhat successful perception management techniques when it comes to projecting how India handles various real and made-up crises. India’s perennial disadvantages include the following: the country is immense, not a disciplined and centralised state and lastly, many of its internal and foreign borders were shaped along the lines of Anglo-Indian post-colonial geo-strategic advantage rather than based on the logic of predicting how self-determination among various races and ethnicities might unfold if given a democratic opportunity to do so.
In terms of its immensity, India has/had something in common with both China and the USSR. In terms of its lack of centralisation vis-a-vis modern China and the old USSR, India was always at a developmental disadvantage. In terms of having key borderlands shaped in a colonial context rather than an organic or democratic context, India’s borders are unique in respect of those of the old USSR or modern China (with the exception of China’s borders with India).
Under Narendra Modi, India has perfected the ability to project more power than the country actually has whilst simultaneously creating a narrative of being victimised by China in terms of trade and border disputes, as well as being victimised by Pakistan in terms of security. Most creatively, this narrative also claims that India is victimised because it is “forced” to try and balance between Russia and the USA even though India objectively had no direct role in provoking post-Cold War disputes between Washington and Moscow.
Modi has developed the skilful ability to play the jingoistic card by exaggerating his country’s willingness and ability to “stand up” to Pakistan and China whilst also portraying the country as one above the fray of more internationally noted geopolitical disputes and hence a perennial victim of circumstance. As such, Modi has been able to create a largely unchallenged (outside of China and Pakistan) image of a modern India that is somehow inherently more peaceful than either China, Russia, Pakistan or the United States.
Because India isn’t a centralised state in the way that China is, Modi can use plausible deniability to make each of these seemingly contradictory narratives appear to be equally genuine. In other words, when Modi plays the jingoist card, an old leftist or moderate will be dragged before the otherwise pro-Modi/pro-BJP television cameras so that he or she can heap excoriation on Modi’s policies for being ‘too effective and yet also too extreme’. When it comes to playing the victim card, India’s de-centralised and vast state can also easily produce individuals who are willing to appear on Chinese, Pakistani or even neutral Singaporean and somewhat pro-Indian Russian television in order to provide a sense of balance that is often missing from pro-Modi domestic mainstays such as Republic TV. Thus, whilst India is falling under ever tightening BJP rule, its decentralised and diverse social characteristics allow for “an alternative India” to be presented in order for New Delhi to plausibly deny acting in either an extreme, dishonest or a contradictory manner.
Thus, because few outside of south Asia have bothered to study India’s internal situation, New Delhi’s intentional plausibility deniability tactic allows the country to present a two-pronged “superpower that is also a victim” strategic narrative without facing much of a challenge on the global stage. Thus, India’s key to managing crises is the persistent proliferation of this narrative that attracts only positive emotions from abroad – whether those of admiration or those of pity.
Pakistan’s method of crisis management is almost entirely reactive. This is rather bemusing seeing as India and the USSR’s role in politically severing East Pakistan from the rest of the country is a far more compelling reality than the fiction of a “conspiracy theory” could ever be. After 1971 the same forces that politically severed East Pakistan from the rest of the country became keen on doing the same to Balochistan province and to what is now known as KP province.
In spite of this, Islamabad’s refusal to preempt events in the country’s borderlands has become so ingrained that now Pakistan refuses to even acknowledge hostile acts taking place in its borders that have a clear financial and intelligence trail to foreign countries including India, Afghanistan and in some cases to the United States – the country that is somewhat ironically fulfilling the role that the USSR played in the region during the second half of the 20th century.
Because Pakistan has been so successfully maligned by international media, Pakistan’s preferred method of managing a crisis is by effectively shouting the old cliché “move along – nothing to see here”. In other words, because Pakistan has grown so accustomed to bad publicity, the country now aims at being ignored rather than being understood.
If Pakistan had fully destroyed the terror groups on its western borderlands, resolved the all too real Kashmir crisis and had neighbours that were content with its sovereignty, this method might work. But because terrorist groups funded by foreign regimes continue to deviously operate on Pakistani soil, because India continues to occupy much of Kashmir and because the Kabul regime refuses to recognise Pakistan’s borders (and by extrapolation its right to exist), Pakistan’s “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” method of crisis management is ultimately one that is half baked in terms of achieving the naturally desired results of stability and an improved global perception.
The one area in which there is an exception to this rule is in active military responses to events on the ground. In the aftermath of the Pulwama Incident in IoK which took place in February of this year, Pakistan was able to resist Indian aggression on multiple military fronts by reacting in a manner that was proportional, defensive (in a military sense), informed in terms of intelligence and in tedious compliance with international law. This method was so successful that even the United States was forced to quietly but markedly admit that India was lying about downing a Pakistani F-16. Of course, the fact that India filled its television screens with straw men arguing against New Delhi’s official F-16 line allowed the country to escape scrutiny and thus escape embarrassment. This itself demonstrates how effective India’s intentional plausible deniability narratives have become.
The problem with Pakistan’s method of reactive “post-crisis management” is that in a dangerous neighbourhood it is never enough to catch up with anti-Pakistan narratives and anti-Pakistani actions. When there is so much to react to, a reactive approach is ultimately the least effective tool to deploy when managing a crisis. In such an instance, the proverbial Pakistani tortoise will never catch up with the many foreign hares.
However, whilst India’s media is carefully balanced between shining an utterly bright light on a pro-government view whilst also airing strawmen opposition figures in order to present an image of an ideologically pluralistic democracy to the outside world, Pakistan’s media is self-hating to the point of being anti-patriotic. In India, those opposed to the BJP are given air time. They are often made to look stupid in the process, but they are nevertheless given air time. In Pakistan, patriotic voices are shut up more readily than opposition voices are in India. Thus, Pakistan’s reactive crisis management is born out of desperation more than out of intent.
Thus, whilst India and Pakistan are both corrupt countries when measured against international best practices, India has been able to weaponize its corrupt media to present the world a democratic image which helps to aid New Delhi’s plausible deniability strategy. By contrast, Pakistan’s corruption is largely out of control in respect of a devious and anti-patriotic media and an opposition that does in real life what the BJP only accuses the patriotic Congress opposition of doing in India.
This is why Pakistan’s entire approach to party politics and to mass media will have to change if Pakistan is to pivot towards a more proactive and less reactive style of crisis management.
Whilst India’s style of crisis management is ultimately low risk/medium reward and whilst Pakistan’s style of crisis management is virtually no risk/low reward, Iran’s is one of high risk with potentially high rewards. Iran’s centralised revolutionary state has a clear singular narrative and as such, there is no room for Indian style plausible deniability nor is the space for Pakistani dithering.
Because of this, Iran alienates many state actors who believe that Iran’s central revolutionary narrative will become on the ground aggression directed at foreign sovereigns. At the same time, Iran attracts positive public opinion among many oppressed or seemingly marginalised peoples in neighbouring or nearby states (Lebanese Shi’a, Bahraini Shi’a, Iraqi Shi’a in a post Saddam age, Syria Alawites and to some degree even western minorities who are drawn more to a foreign religion than to secular or atheistic leftism).
This strategy has led to Iran having many highly proficient advocates in regional powers and to an extent in the wider world. But unlike India whose “largest democracy” status allows it to escape international blame for things like the Doklam/Donglang standoff, the Kashmir crisis and ties to anti-Pakistan militants, Iran is blamed both for what it does do in foreign lands (aid Hezbollah, aid Assad in Syria, aid Iraqi Shi’a militias) but it is also often blamed for what it does not do – most notably when high ranking US officials blamed Iran for the 9/11 atrocity.
Crucially, Iran’s denial of what it does not do is not always taken seriously because of the fact that Iran’s proactive strategy is so well known. Here, the power of extrapolation is very powerful because unlike India, Iran cannot produce opposition strawmen to proffer a seemingly believable narrative that goes against the more nationalistic/revolutionary elements of the government. This is one of the rare moments in which a decentralised state has an advantage in terms of media perception management vis-a-vis a centralised one.
One of the only countries to thus far use a similar method to that of Iran and survive “regime change” has been the DPRK (North Korea). Here, even more than its small nuclear arsenal, the DPRK’s geography is a supreme asset. Sandwiched on a peninsula between China and Russia on the one side and a South Korea filled with tens of thousands of American troops and civilians on the other side, it is common knowledge that a new war in Korea would be an even bigger suicide mission than the one attempted in 1950.
Iran does not have this advantage and thus its absolutist style of managing a crisis with major threats to would be aggressors on the DPRK model is far more risky. Iran’s geography is in many ways its greatest misfortune as it can be easily approached by would-be opponents from both land and multiple waterways. In this sense, whilst India’s bluffs are rarely called because of a carefully managed plausible deniability and whilst Pakistan is always acting from a defensive position, Iran instead engages in high stakes bluff-calling that relies on countries like America and Israel to fear both direct Iranian retaliation and retaliation from pro-Iranian groups to such an extent that on cost-benefit analysis they feel that a direct strike on Iran would be ill advised. It is still anyone’s guess as to whether this will work in Iran’s favour.
Whilst Iran, Pakistan and India have intriguing elements of a shared history, their modern methods of crisis management are all completely different. The goal of this piece was not to present one as being superior to another, but merely to explore how generalisations based on a somewhat common geography and a somewhat shared history can be ultimately worthless when the ways in which the country’s have developed are so utterly different as can be best seen when exploring how they deal with crises.