Statecraft vs. Surgical Strikes: What Kautilya Tells Us About India-Pakistan Relations

Modern psychology and ancient political philosopher Kautilya's writings can help India craft a new approach in ties with Pakistan.

Credit: Reuters

Credit: Reuters

The surgical strikes carried out by the Indian army on September 29 across the Line of Control (LoC) against terrorist launch-pads have been analysed by a host of commentators. The fields of security, foreign policy, domestic and electoral politics have all been explored, but psychological science has never been mentioned. But why should it feature? Because, quite simply, the surgical strikes are a part of the government’s new strategy to permanently change the behaviour of the generals who control the ‘deep state’ in Pakistan. And the business of altering human behaviour is the very currency of psychology – a modern science drawing inter alia on neuroscience, computer modelling, decision theory, group dynamics and probability.

Apart from the surgical strikes, the new strategy also focuses on human rights violations in Balochistan, although the government is deliberately vague about its implementation. Taken together, these actions are designed to impose costs on Pakistan and dissuade it from supporting cross-border terrorism. India’s posture is thus more robust and assertive than in the past, but while its goals are admirable, is there something that might make this strategy work even better? Scientific psychology may have some clues.

While modern geopolitical theory has largely ignored human psychology, this was not the case for its first practitioners – the ancient philosophers who studied statecraft and instructed kings and princes on good governance. Take Kautilya, Sunzi, Confucius, Socrates, Plato, Machiavelli and Ibn Khaldun. Their analyses of what motivates humans underpinned their advice to their sovereigns. So, a good starting point would be to examine our own Kautilya’s four upayas (approaches): sama (persuasion), dana (incentive), bheda (divide-and-rule), danda (coercive force) – as levers to alter the course of human actions.


Sama can be translated as ‘persuasion through reasoned discourse’. We can easily rule out using this course of action to deal with the deep state generals. This is not because they are any more unreasonable than the rest of us. It is because research has shown that whilst reason works well in much of our daily life, it is singularly ineffective when it comes to changing deeply-held convictions, emotional attachments and entrenched habits. Years of parliamentary debate have not changed their convictions about and around political beliefs, religion, ethnicity or language. As for emotion, try convincing your teenage daughter not to date a boy who – in your opinion – is unsuitable. Does a long-standing smoker quit if you point out the statistical risks of cancer? A core assumption in this piece is that the deep state generals in Pakistan hold strong convictions, beliefs and habits which are the raison d’etre for their very survival and that of their supporting eco-system.

Why do otherwise reasonable people hold on to certain beliefs or exhibit specific behaviours when the evidence clearly shows that these behaviours are not productive and may even be self-destructive? Psychological science labels such contradictions ‘cognitive dissonance’. When strong beliefs, emotions or habits are confronted with contrarian evidence, the mind experiences difficulty in processing the contradiction, hence the dissonance. To avoid this, the mind uses ploys such as ignoring the  contradictory evidence, denigrating it or even integrating it artfully (but self-deceivingly) into the internal mental architecture. This is why sama is inappropriate for this situation . (But even such deep-rooted beliefs can be changed, as will be revealed later.)


What about dana? This term can be rendered as ‘inducement’ or ‘incentive’. It covers both financial rewards as well as other approaches used for positive reinforcement such as praise, recognition, social or professional prestige and career progression. Psychology and management theory both have a wealth of literature in this area. Financial incentives are effective when the tasks are simple, repetitive and within the range of human effort. But not so much when the tasks are complex, innovative or involve teamwork and collaboration. Over-emphasising financial gains only results in people gaming the system: the classic example is the great financial crisis of 2008 when financial intermediaries sold dud products like sub-prime mortgages, walking away with fat bonuses whilst bankrupting millions of other people in the process.

Still, this approach has a lot going for it and dana is the favoured method to influence human behaviour in most situations. How has it worked in Pakistan? The Americans have used it for decades, but inconsistently and fitfully, hence coming up with mixed results. The Pakistanis have done just enough to keep the dollars flowing, keeping their own agenda intact, frustrating the Americans but not so much as to make them give up on Pakistan altogether. This skillful gaming has kept the love-hate relationship between the US and Pakistan alive and productive (for the generals) over the years. Cognitive dissonance can also help explain this outcome. Giving a reward to a person is an external justification for engaging in activity contrary to one’s beliefs, but if the reward is temporary or uncertain, the fundamental belief system springs back into action.

Now, the Chinese are into the act of dana in Pakistan. As adept gamblers, they have placed a big bet on Pakistan – US$ 46 billion to be precise – in the shape of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). They are surely aware that some of this money will leak into the pockets of the ruling elite, making the Pakistanis even more beholden to their Chinese benefactors. Not only that, but also the long duration of these projects and the associated cash flow will extend the period during which the generals are likely to comply with the CPEC strategy. Even after the predicted leakages, the Chinese calculate that the residual amount is enough to make a big, positive difference in the availability of electricity and infrastructure in Pakistan. According to the Chinese estimate, creating an industrial base with a critical mass comprising an industrial working class and a professional middle class will provide enough ballast to guard against the possibility of any jihadi rule in Pakistan.

India needs to pay attention to this somewhat cynical but eminently practical dana logic of the Chinese since it has, somewhat summarily, taken an aversion to the CPEC. For it must be clear to the Chinese that the CPEC makes no economic sense if visualised as a hermetically-sealed corridor running from the Karakorum to the Arabian Sea. It will be viable only when it can connect with the big markets that lie to its east and west – India and Iran, respectively. Connectivity benefits all those around. Markets demand production,which in turn creates employment. Investment in infrastructure – needed in both India and Pakistan – can be a productive outlet for China’s massive investment reserves. Here lies a window of congruence that links India, China and Pakistan’s interest in mutual prosperity. Should we not think creatively about this opportunity?

Psychological science also tells us that counter-intuitive thinking is one of the signs of leadership. Take China and Japan, for example. Politically, they stand divided by maritime disputes and their shared history has left bitter legacies. But still, they have a flourishing economic relationship through trade and investment. Over 4 million Chinese tourists visit Japan each year, (India gets 200,000 Chinese visitors). Clearly, China and Japan have successfully separated the political issues from socio-economic matters of mass interest. The same goes for China and the US. Can India do so as well, both with China and Pakistan?


What about the third upaya, bheda? This means ‘divide-and rule’ and the use of deception and subterfuge. Our epics have several episodes of heroic figures using tactics at the very edge of ‘the rules of war’ and their moral qualms are the subject of heated debate even today. But history provides little comfort in the effectiveness of such bheda. Whilst subterfuge can win a battle, it rarely wins the war. The trouble with covert action is that it invites similar retaliation and this spiral can escalate rapidly beyond the control of the original ‘handlers’. The Americans know this all too well after their excursions into Afghanistan in the 1980s.

But there is a constructive way of looking at bheda. Our home minister said recently that we have no quarrel with the people of Pakistan. Our problem is with the tactics adopted by the shadowy figures who operate its deep state. This opens an opportunity for us to respond to what the people of Pakistan want, clearly distinguishing their actions from the aggravations encouraged by the Pakistani state. This means opening trade, commerce and investment, promoting people-to-people contact, tourism and exchanges in the spheres of academia, culture, art and sports. The obstacle to all this is not so much our government’s rhetoric as it is the hyper-patriotic responses from sections of our media and civil society who seemingly want to break off all human contact with people across the border. It is important that our government not be swayed into taking rash actions by these voices. Constructive bheda can recruit the Pakistani people as friends.


Danda is the fourth and last upaya: coercive force to change behaviour. What does the scientific record say? Well, force is certainly super-efficient in extracting compliance: if someone holds a gun to your head, you hand over your wallet. But such compliance is temporary; the moment the assailant is out of sight, you yell for help and dial the police. Permanent compliance requires the credible threat of catastrophic force: something akin to the US-Soviet nuclear stand-off over Cuba in 1962. It is doubtful if even the most hawkish of our TV anchors and armchair strategists would risk such nuclear brinkmanship with Pakistan. And for the results of lesser but more sporadic and unwise uses of force, look at Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen, where it has resulted in the rise of organisations like Al Qaeda and ISIS – who employ even worse forms of this upaya.

Another approach to applying danda is employing economic sanctions. The efficacy of these too is questionable, as shown in the cases of Cuba, Iran, Russia and even India’s own experience, when we built our nuclear and space capabilities in the teeth of severe import bans and restrictions. In any case, any meaningful sanctions against Pakistan can only be enforced by the USA or China and neither is anywhere close to taking such a step.

Transformational change

Finally, there is indeed a way to overcome cognitive dissonance and change deep and entrenched human beliefs, attitudes and habits. This is the process of transformational change. It is unusual and rare, but powerful when it does happen. We sometimes see radical changes in personality and attitude in people after a period of life-threatening illness, a near-death experience or an event of intense religious or emotional significance. Suddenly, people who undergo significant experience seem like different people altogether and in a way, they are. The intensity of such an experience creates a kind of mini-explosion within the brain and re-arranges a person’s neuronal circuitry, shaking him/er out of old grooves and allowing fresh perspectives to emerge. When combined with charismatic political leadership, such experiences can lead to national transformation. Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha and Nelson Mandela’s visionary truth and reconciliation commission are luminous examples.

This method is not suggested as a practical course of action to change the hearts and minds of Pakistan’s deep state generals. Still, an intriguing thought arises. Here lies a challenge for some of India’s renowned godmen – can they work their wonders here?

In conclusion, where does all this leave us? To start with, it tells us that like most biological sciences, psychology is an inexact process. No single upaya can be used in isolation and with its pristine purity intact. What is needed is an alchemical mixture of upayas, specially conjured up for the circumstances. We might call such a cocktail ‘the New Delhi Upaya’ (a la ‘Singapore Sling’). It would consist of 10% sama, to provide the right externalities of diplomatic convention. The main substance would be dana, for mutual benefit, amounting to 60%. Bheda, in its constructive version as above, would form 20% of the mixture and the final element would be 10% of danda, to add some spice and inject verve into the domestic spine.

Ravi Bhoothalingam is an MA in Experimental Psychology from Cambridge University, a corporate director, and Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.