India and crisis management


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THE reaction of states and regimes to crises is a staple of the study of modern international relations, and an important part of the study of business strategy and public policy. International crises, in particular, have a certain romance about them – the looming possibility of escalation (especially in a nuclear environment), the sometimes reckless use of brinkmanship, the role of covert communications and back channels, and the watchful eye of the international community and the possibility of third party intervention all provide great drama to the study of relations between states.

Modern India, like many other states, regularly contends with crises. Some have been domestic – the Bhopal disaster, the economic crisis of 1990, and most recently the tsunami of 2004-2005. India has also faced both bilateral and multilateral international crises, including the crisis of 1971, at least six different military crises with Pakistan since 1984 (with a progressively more threatening nuclear component), the intervention of a peace keeping force in Sri Lanka in 1987, the evacuation of Indian citizens abroad in 1990 and 2006, and multiple terrorist incidents. These all give some evidence for identifying India’s crisis management ‘style’.

This essay will focus on several key components of crisis and crisis management – surprise and the role of intelligence agencies both before and during the crisis; cooperation and coordination among government agencies in crisis; the use of signalling and communications in crisis; the role of leadership in managing and defusing crises; and how the Indian system has adapted and learned from each crisis. This essay will also focus primarily on crises with Pakistan, because crisis management is more difficult in the face of an adversary, and because the number of crises with Pakistan since 1984 provides a more consistent source of examples to demonstrate institutional learning and change.

The romance of crisis management as a focus for the study of international relations dates back to the crises of October 1962. For India, of course, military and political leadership struggled with the implications of a looming military defeat on the Sino-Indian border. In the United States, the Himalayan War was subsumed in what for the US was a much greater crisis in the Caribbean – the famous Cuban Missile Crisis. This two-week event is now immortalized in film (Thirteen Days in October) and books (Essence of Decision), and remains a case study for the understanding of international relations. What most Americans and Indians do not know is that at the same time President Kennedy created the famous ‘EXCOM’ (executive committee) of the highest ranking officials for discussion of Cuba, he simultaneously created a second committee of key officials at a slightly lower tier in the bureaucracy to consider options in the Sino-Indian conflict.


In the United States, crisis management became almost a cult phenomenon – studied intensely by businesses, policy-makers, and academics. The reason for this is simple. Crises provide a unique opportunity for officials to make decisions that matter. Those decisions are made under pressure – correct decisions must be made in a timely manner. The correctness of the decision is measurable, since the crisis either resolves satisfactorily (including, in some cases, a ‘win’) or it does not. Crises provide a benchmark for measuring executive performance at the highest level, under the greatest pressure, and often in circumstances of intense competition.

It would be a mistake to assume that the American fascination – some might say obsession – with crisis management is found in equal measure elsewhere in the world. Different states and regimes manage crises in different ways – each has its own particular style, resulting from its own history, traditions, and institutions. What is so interesting about the Indian case is how crisis management has evolved, since 1962, in such different ways from the US.


In India, especially in government, the style of decision-making is quite different from the United States. India has large, highly trained bureaucracies, but decision-making remains tightly centralized, hierarchical, and stovepiped. The Prime Minister and a handful of close advisors already make most of the major decisions in government – often in consultation, but the nature of Indian decision-making already vests enormous authority and routine responsibility in the hands of the very top leaders. This process of centralization, present since independence, has only accelerated since the 1970s. The small strategic enclave that dominated nuclear decision-making from 1947-1998 symbolizes this tightly-knit, highly centralized decision-making style. A crisis, which is a rare opportunity to act decisively for American executives, is very much ‘business as usual’ in the Indian system – with perhaps a slightly elevated sense of haste.

India’s inter-agency process is also unique. The Lok Sabha plays remarkably little role in national security or foreign affairs. The extraordinary influence of certain key institutions – the Ministry of External Affairs, Indian Administrative Service, and Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), to name a few – is not necessarily matched by an ability to coordinate across agencies or work cooperatively. Competition between ministries – the Ministry of Finance, DRDO, and the Ministry of Defence on matters of defence procurement – and between elements of the bureaucracy (Indian Foreign Service and Indian Administrative Service, for example) inhibits normal decision-making, and does not appear to decrease substantially in crisis.

Finally, India’s unique civil-military relationship creates an ambiguous impact on policy – in most periods, military influence is limited and tightly channelled into specific areas of professional expertise (tactics, operations, force structure, and certain elements of procurement). At times, however, particular Indian military leaders have been extremely influential or outspoken, creating points of dissonance in what otherwise appears to be a gradual evolution towards modest but greater military involvement in foreign policy matters.


Surprise is endemic to crisis, as friction is to warfare. What creates a crisis is at least in part a sense of psychological shock – the abrupt emergence of the unexpected. It is easy to blame intelligence agencies and professionals for failure to anticipate the unexpected, but this often unrealistic. Uncertainty is a fundamental factor in intelligence collection and interpretation. What is equally interesting is how intelligence adapts to crisis, how it is used, and how accurately it assesses second-order effects of the activities of the state.

Both Indian and Pakistani scholars and analysts routinely reassure Americans that the regional nuclear balance is stable, because both sides understand one another so well. The experience of the region since the mid-1980s, however, suggests that surprise and crisis have been endemic, at least in part because of intelligence failures based on significant misperception or over-confidence. From Surprise to Reckoning: The Kargil Review Committee Report devotes three chapters and several different sections on findings and recommendations to the inadequacy of India’s intelligence gathering efforts. The report makes a series of recommendations about both organizational changes and the need to provide greater redundancy in collection and assessment. Not all the recommendations have been acted upon – this is also the case with the American 9/11 Commission Report.


The inability to predict certain second-order effects in earlier crises is quite evident. In the Brasstacks crisis of 1986, for instance, there appears to have been no awareness in India that the nature of the later stages of the operation might create a crisis. A routine military exercise practising the dispersal and concealment of key strike elements in the Indian Air Force generated great alarm among both Pakistani and US analysts in 1984. Routine Indian Army exercises in both 1990 and 2008 were interpreted by Pakistan (rightly or wrongly) as aggressive or threatening in the midst of evolving crises. It remains unclear how much of India’s failed effort at coercion in 2001-2002 was the result of flawed intelligence assessments, and how much was simply the result of frustration and a lack of credible military options.

India’s intelligence agencies, particularly the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), have a historically close relationship with the office of the prime minister. As a result, during crises their output has been, increasingly, utilized for signalling purposes (see below). The Kargil Review Committee recognized the most spectacular coup of the 1999 conflict – the interception and subsequent publication of General Musharraf’s high-level telephone conversations. Indian intelligence has also been used for diplomatic purposes in 1971, to publicize Pakistan’s actions in what is now Bangladesh, and also in both the 2001-2002 and 2008 Mumbai attacks to indicate links to Pakistani intelligence agencies and support.


As mentioned above, Americans revel in crisis management at least in part because it allows executives to step out of their institutional role and consider and inform broader policy-making. Because of crises and more extended conflict experiences (especially Vietnam, and now Iraq), the United States is institutionalizing both jointness (coordination between military services) and inter-agency cooperation (between various government agencies). In the US system, influence depends not only on personalities, but also on resources, which makes the Department of Defense an extraordinarily powerful player in foreign policy.

The Indian system is evolving much more slowly towards joint and inter-agency cooperation and coordination. Barriers to information sharing are sometimes formidable, and do not appear to lift significantly in crisis. The IPKF mission (Operation Pawan) was hampered by inter-service issues – the Indian Navy now admits in its Indian Military Maritime Strategy that ‘…it often deposited the troops ashore in an unfit condition to fight.’ Sharing of intelligence between R&AW and the army in the Sri Lankan intervention has been criticized by some analysts. The MEA was at least partially excluded from the planning of Brasstacks, and was either unwilling or unable to provide insight into possible Pakistani reactions. The misreading at almost all levels of Pakistan’s response to India’s 1998 nuclear tests contributed to two successive crises – the first in the period just before Pakistan’s test, when Pakistani security responded to an anticipated (but non-existent) Indian pre-emptive strike, and later in Kargil.

The tensions in cooperation are only exacerbated by Indian civil-military relations. The role of the military, and particularly the army, is tightly regulated by Indian political leadership. At the same time, the army is by far the largest service, and the one with the greatest capacity in a wide range of contingencies. As a result, the establishment of joint and inter-agency coordinating bodies – the Integrated Defence Staff, or a National Security Council – has been complicated and, to date, incomplete. The response to the Mumbai attack suggests a range of obstacles to effective coordination.

Jointness and inter-agency cooperation thrive, however, in crisis circumstances in India that are non-competitive – the response to the tsunami in 2004-2005, in which joint planning played a critical part is an interesting example. The enormous difficulty the US had in managing the Hurricane Katrina disaster suggests a counterpoint – the US may be much less focused or adequate in organizing for natural disasters than in thinking about international crises. This may be a function of familiarity (the Indian Ocean is the scene of catastrophic natural disasters on a more regular basis than the continental US), of institutional competence and capability, or perhaps of institutional focus and organizational style.


A crucial element of crisis management is the use of communications and signalling. These tools allow governments to frame the nature of the problem for their own populations, to influence the international community, and most crucially to manage escalation and tension with the adversary, leading to a resolution of the crisis short of major war. These efforts can include not only official remarks and formalized bilateral communications channels, but also informal channels, ‘Track Two’ approaches (often through former officials), third-party diplomatic intervention, and the use of leaks to local and international media.

US analysts were particularly struck by the reluctance of both India and Pakistan to use a ‘hot line’ established between the two military headquarters during crises in the late Cold War period. The US had come to rely on these official channels for defusing potential crises, and for simply keeping the Soviets informed of potential surprises, during the Cold War. As the Indo-Pakistan relationship became more hostile and crisis-prone, primarily because of Pakistani support for a range of militants attempting to destabilize India, India’s use of signalling and communications evolved.


A major argument for more control in the process emerged during the Kargil conflict, when multiple Indian sources of varying levels of official influence made remarks about nuclear preparedness and strategy. These communications included belligerent statements from the RSS – which Pakistanis might have interpreted as much more ‘official’, given the BJP-led coalition government, than they actually were. Lack of control over nuclear signalling is an easy route to inadvertent escalation, and it is clear that during Operation Parakram the Indian government exercised more stringent control over the process. Track Two diplomatic efforts, at the time, apparently played some role in crisis management – although they were ultimately unsuccessful in creating a solution to the Kashmir issue.

An area where India has been particularly effective in influencing both domestic and international audiences has been the use of the well-placed intelligence release. The release of transcripts of telephone calls between Pakistani leaders during the Kargil crisis clearly delegitimized Pakistan’s spurious official story. Similarly, the leaking of some data about the terrorist attackers on 13 December 2001 made a profound impression on the US and the international community, and essentially confirmed the Pakistani origin of the attackers, if not the attack itself. Most recently, the release of a significant file on the Mumbai attack, and the continuing flow of information from the one captured terrorist, leave no doubt about the Pakistani origins of the attackers.


Given India’s centralized decision-making process, it is not surprising that executive leadership is crucial in crisis management. Various leaders have demonstrated somewhat different approaches – Indira Gandhi, for example, was opportunistic and Machiavellian in her exploitation of the 1971 crisis. Rajiv Gandhi also exhibited an opportunistic side in 1986 – perhaps from inexperience, perhaps from the unique influence of a pair of senior military and defence advisors, or perhaps out of a genuine desire to influence Pakistan before its nuclear capacity was actualized. Atal Bihari Vajpayee demonstrated both idealism after the nuclear tests and a frustrated (and entirely understandable) outrage during Kargil and Parakram. In each of the latter cases, however, belligerent rhetoric did not blossom into unconstrained military action. In response to individual terrorist acts, Vajpayee chose not to overreact to the Indian Airlines 814 hijacking incident in 1999, and Manmohan Singh showed enormous restraint over Mumbai.

Each of the crises with Pakistan has been a test of Indian policy, and of the utility of military force in managing its relationship with Pakistan. Because these crises have been nearly constant, averaging at least two per decade since the 1980s, they also constitute a referendum on the policies of particular governments and of the Indian leadership consensus on the Indo-Pakistani relationship. During and after each crisis, the existing Indian leadership must grapple with how tough a stance they wish to take, the role of military force, and how they wish to conduct diplomacy with Pakistan during and after the crisis. Each crisis provides plenty of ammunition for partisan critics and for those who believe India should take a far more antagonistic stance towards their western neighbour.


It is interesting, therefore, that the overall trend in Indian policy, reinforced through multiple crises with leaders from several different political parties and alliances, has been pragmatic and restrained. Some, especially in the United States, argue that this is attributable to the presence of nuclear weapons on both sides. Nuclear weapons undoubtedly play some role in Indian restraint, but do not explain some remarkable choices. PM Vajpayee, for example, had every reason not to conduct any kind of negotiations with General Musharraf once he took power, given Musharraf’s role in the Kargil conflict. He could easily have opted for something like a containment policy – an option that was frequently mentioned among Indian analysts and critics – given the woeful state of Pakistan’s economy, diplomatic relations (especially with the United States), and the ongoing militancy in Jammu and Kashmir. Rajiv Gandhi opted for ‘cricket diplomacy’ rather than Operation Trident. Manmohan Singh chose not to pressure Pakistan’s new and fragile democracy too fiercely, despite the viciousness of the Mumbai attacks. Each crisis, therefore, has contributed to the strengthening of an Indian tradition of watchful engagement with Pakistan, however unpleasant that may occasionally seem.


Responses to domestic crises, however, have led to considerable adaptation by leadership. The Bhopal disaster reversed Indo-US economic relations. The economic crisis of 1990-1991 led to a reassessment of India’s economic policy. Internal conflicts in Punjab and elsewhere, even when receiving foreign support, created opportunities to make significant changes in security policy and in the management of local politics. Internal crises, therefore, appear to provide opportunities for major policy innovation and response, in contrast to external crises which appear to reinforce a relatively consistent policy approach.

This makes, again, an interesting contrast with the American experience. Americans tend to focus on international crises, which then profoundly impact not only domestic elections but also overall policy. The Cuban missile crisis basically validated President Kennedy, and contributed to the landslide victory of President Johnson in 1964. The combination of the Iranian revolution (with associated hostage crisis) and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan doomed President Carter. Operation ‘Desert Fox’ nearly reached the level of comic relief in 1998, with both Iraq and the opposition Republican Party suggesting that President Clinton was attempting to distract the country from his domestic problems. The aftermath of that crisis included an under-resourced commitment by the Clinton administration to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein – a commitment which was pursued by his successor after 9/11, with profound effects on US international and domestic policy.

In one area, the response of both India and the US is similar. In both states, international crises tend to lead to temporary increases in military spending. India’s defence expenditures increased dramatically after both Kargil and Parakram – as did the US after the disasters of 1979. Again, India makes pragmatic choices after crises with Pakistan, including the reconsideration of the issue of limited war after Kargil, and the continued implementation of a new and more flexible ‘Cold Start’ army doctrine after Parakram.


Indian crisis management style, therefore, is not terribly dissimilar from general Indian governance – tightly centralized, risk-averse, and hierarchical in nature. India does learn from crises, but changes tend to be evolutionary rather than innovative. Continual crises with Pakistan are gradually changing the civil-military relationship, permitting greater military input into policy planning and crisis management, while still maintaining strict civilian control. Individual leaders are the most important factor in Indian crisis management efforts, but the overall Indian experience in crisis is one of gradual evolution and continuity. International crises do not generally result in dramatic policy shifts. Those tend to result from domestic crises, and are then reflected in electoral shifts.