05/19/2014 11:28 pm ET Updated Jul 19, 2014

Pakistan's Generals Leery of Modi's Rise in India

Although Pakistan's political leaders have expressed optimistic sentiments with respect to the election of the right-wing Narendra Modi as prime minister of India, let us not forget that the country's true center of power does not lie in Islamabad -- it resides in the cantonments of Rawalpindi. The military calls the shots in Pakistan and early signs indicate that its leaders are not delighted by the ascendance of a Hindu nationalist next door. Should Modi live up to his reputation as a hardliner and India take on a more belligerent foreign policy, one can certainly expect Pakistan to redouble its efforts at sabotage.

Pakistan has been fortunate that India has not taken a more hostile stance to date especially after evidence surfaced implicating Pakistan's spy agency in the 2008 terrorist assault in Mumbai. Not to mention Pakistan's coordination with the Haqqani Network in launching attacks against Indian diplomatic targets in Afghanistan.

Yet Pakistani concerns about Modi also have merit, given accusations that he did little to stem communal bloodshed as minister of Gujarat during riots in 2002, in which 1,000 were killed -- mostly Muslims. Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has longstanding ties to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an extremist paramilitary outfit which has a long history of engaging in anti-Muslim violence.

In order to best understand why Pakistan is anxious about Modi, one must delve into the collective psyche of Pakistan's military. From the bloody wreckage of partition in 1947 Pakistan was not only founded as a religious nation, it was established as a garrison state based on the vice-regal model of the British Raj -- a system which guaranteed executive power would be concentrated into the hands of the military elite.

And though nominally a democracy, the military is still the most powerful institution in the country. As a prototypical military state Pakistan tends to treat security interests as paramount -- and when it comes to India it does so to an obsessive degree.

Also consider the fact that India dwarfs Pakistan by nearly every measure of national power available. India's population (1.2 billion), economy (GDP of $1.4 trillion) and military budget ($45 billion) are about eight times the size of Pakistan's. Weigh this in addition to the fact that since inception Pakistan has been on the losing end of three conventional wars, including a rout in 1971 in which India crushed Pakistan in less than two weeks.

T.V. Paul writes in The Warrior State that Pakistan operates based on "hyper-realpolitik" assumptions which drive it to prioritize security interests "as an end in itself and above all other national goals, including economic welfare, irrespective of the consequences." As a result, the worldview of Pakistan's military leaders has been shaped by the conviction, rightly or wrongly, that it is perpetually under existential threat in the shadow of its colossal nemesis.

So one can only imagine how Modi's victory has unsettled Pakistan's military establishment. If tensions do escalate Pakistan is unlikely to confront India conventionally and will intensify its use of jihadist groups as an asymmetric weapon. According to regional experts S. Paul Kapur and Sumit Ganguly, Islamist militants allow Pakistan to serve its national interests "without subjecting Pakistani forces to the costs and risks of direct conflict."

Before the new regime has even taken power leaders from both countries have begun aggressively positioning on decades-old volatile issues. A Pakistani diplomat on Monday said the two countries must decide whether to "bury the hatchet" or "continue to be at daggers drawn indefinitely."

Earlier this month Modi accused Pakistan's army chief of provocation, referring to General Raheel Sharif's claim that Kashmir was a "jugular vein" for Pakistan. Modi characterized the statement as "interference in the internal affairs" of India. This is hardly the type of rhetoric that will help close the trust deficit or defuse sectarian animus that has poisoned relations for the past 66 years.

According to former Indian ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar, hawks in India have advocated a strategy of "hot pursuit" against Pakistan and apparently don't mind waging a war to call Pakistan's "nuclear bluff." Said militant nationalists also happen to be "ardent admirers" of Modi. He goes on to add that Pakistan's generals will likely conclude that this time "India's big lurch to right-wing Hindu nationalism" is for real.

The last thing Pakistan should be doing is upping its support of extremist groups, considering it is under siege, not by India, but by the Pakistani Taliban -- who, ironically, deem the Pakistani state as "apostate" by the standards of Islamic true believers. Regardless the blowback, Pakistan's army chieftains are highly unlikely to take Modi's saber-rattling lightly. Hence, the last thing India should be doing is injecting more religious nationalism into a ticking-time-bomb relationship between nuclear-powered neighbors.