In the long run, stability depends on Pakistan ending its indefensible support for terrorism. Its prime minister, Imran Khan, is urging dialogue and, in a promising gesture, was due to release India’s pilot—presumably with the approval of the army chief, who calls the shots on matters of security.
But in the short run Mr Modi shares the responsibility to stop a disastrous escalation. Because he faces an election in April, he faces the hardest and most consequential calculations. They could come to define his premiership.
Mr Modi has always presented himself as a bold and resolute military leader, who does not shrink from confronting Pakistan’s provocations. He has taken to repeating a catchphrase from the film “Uri”, which portrays a commando raid he ordered against Pakistan in 2016 in response to a previous terrorist attack as a moment of chin-jutting grit. The all-too-plausible fear is that his own tendency to swagger, along with domestic political pressures, will spur him further down the spiral towards war.
The ambiguity of Mr Modi’s beliefs only deepens the danger. He campaigned at the election in 2014 as a moderniser, who would bring jobs and prosperity to India. But, his critics charge, all his talk of development and reform is simply the figleaf for a lifelong commitment to a divisive Hindu-nationalist agenda.
Over the past five years Mr Modi has lived up neither to the hype nor to the dire warnings. The economy has grown strongly under his leadership, by around 7% a year. He has brought about reforms his predecessors had promised but never delivered, such as a nationwide goods-and-services tax (GST).
But unemployment has actually risen during Mr Modi’s tenure, according to leaked data that his government has been accused of trying to suppress. The GST was needlessly complex and costly to administer. Other pressing reforms have fallen by the wayside. India’s banks are still largely in state hands, still prone to lend to the well-connected. And as the election has drawn closer, Mr Modi has resorted to politically expedient policies that are likely to harm the economy. His government hounded the boss of the central bank out of office for keeping interest rates high, appointing a replacement who promptly cut them. And it has unveiled draft rules that would protect domestic e-commerce firms from competition from retailers such as Amazon.