The cancellation of the scheduled talks between the national security advisors of India and Pakistan, Ajit Doval and Sartaj Aziz, felt like euthanasia – unpleasant but a welcome respite given the lack of alternatives. Rawalpindi’s persistence in sabotaging talks – terrorist attacks, cross-border shelling, infiltration attempts, and insisting on talking to Kashmiri separatists, the All-Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC) – ultimately paid off.
There will be an outpouring of concern in editorials over the next few days over how recklessly Narendra Modi is steering the country’s foreign policy with regard to Pakistan, but it is difficult to imagine the editorials remaining silent had talks continued – in all likelihood, the Modi government would have been criticised for continuing with talks despite repeated and deadly provocations, not to mention an inexplicable and sudden softness in its Pakistan policy. As such, these opinions are worthless for the goal appears to be more Modi-bashing and less critical thought.
The drama of the past few days is uncannily similar to events almost exactly a year ago, when the new Modi government cancelled talks with Pakistan over the meeting of Abdul Basit, the latter’s High Commissioner, with Kashmiri separatists in Delhi just before the talks. Such consultations have been a longstanding tradition but the actions of the Modi government indicate that India has reconsidered its policy on the acceptability of foreign leaders meeting with separatists. So much for continuity of foreign policy…
There is a large constituency in Delhi that support diplomatic engagement with Pakistan no matter the circumstances. However, it remains to be asked what benefits India has ever accrued from its umpteen talks with its troublesome neighbour over the past decades. Not one achievement can be recalled that validates, even partially, the efforts of Indian diplomats. The question naturally arises, why should India continue to engage with Pakistan seriously, or why Delhi should even maintain a full diplomatic mission in Islamabad. It might even be argued that India should not be emollient with Pakistan any longer but take a tougher stance. As the oft-quoted wisdom goes, repeating the same thing and expecting different results is a sign of insanity.
A tough policy, to lay rest to the caricature at the outset, does not mean a military invasion or even a large cross-border raid. Due to certain acts of Chinese commission and US omission, use of force against Pakistan above an ambiguous threshold is fraught with risks. Besides, there are several options India can consider before the ultimate argument of kings.
If Pakistan cannot conduct itself in the manner befitting the basis of diplomatic exchange, there is no reason to accord them that privilege. In fact, there is little reason for Delhi to maintain a full mission in Islamabad. India can request the United States, Pakistan’s great benefactor, to host an Indian diplomatic interests section within its embassy; all critical communications can be relayed out of the section without having to maintain the charade of normal relations.
Diplomatic links may be progressively reestablished as signs emerge that effective measures are being taken against non-state actors along the border and that Pakistani troops have been ordered to stand down from indiscriminate cross-border shelling. Pakistan must be made to earn the right to participate in talks. If Islamabad cannot promise to curtail its army or its terrorists, what is the purpose of keeping on talking?
India can also use its diplomatic influence at every international forum to push for counter-terrorism commitments in every aid package to Pakistan. In all likelihood, this is unlikely to reap rich rewards but it will put pressure on Islamabad and constantly remind the international community about questions regarding the safe haven for terror networks in Pakistan. Islamabad would be forced to expend diplomatic capital and lobbying effort to counter India’s narrative of its conduct.
Taking the fight to the enemy, India also retains the option of encouraging Baloch and Pashtun sentiments on independence. This is a delicate matter which has diplomatic, cultural, and military dimensions to it and the risk of blowback is high. For example, Baloch separatism may ring alarm bells in Iran, a country important to India’s Central Asia and energy strategies. Similarly, Pashtun sentiments must be balanced against Afghan repercussions. Nonetheless, it is an option worth exploring and pursuing, albeit with caution.
As far as terrorists of interest are concerned, India would stand to profit from the development of covert operations capabilities to carry out surveillance, infiltration, and targeted assassinations. From all reports, India is years away from fielding such skills and even then, such tactics usually cause only disruption rather than bring resolution. No matter, it is best to keep available the widest range of options and such considerations should not stop Delhi from developing a force capable of such missions. Furthermore, the occasional public spectacle of a successful clandestine operation serves a psychological purpose among civilians and combatants alike.
The usual word of caution in taking any hawkish stance on Pakistan is a reminder of the nuclear shield behind which Pakistan conducts its nefarious asymmetric operations. As the United States tries to impress upon India, Pakistan’s political and economic stability is in Indian interests too for turmoil in the country would put the custody of approximately 120 nuclear warheads in question. Yet it must also be borne in mind that none of what has been suggested as part of India’s offensive panoply represents anything more than a minuscule show of arms; most of Delhi’s tactics remain diplomatic and economic with only the slightest armed assistance.
As regards the survival of a unitary (West) Pakistani state, the secession of Balochistan and a Pashtun region – to consider the extreme outcomes – may not be a flowering of democracy and peace but it will certainly restrict Pakistan militarily, geographically, and strategically as several strategic assets move out of its jurisdiction. Punjabi control over the state apparatus, its army and its nuclear arsenal, will certainly be weakened and circumscribed but not threatened. Given the ethnic paranoia that drives Pakistan, it is highly unlikely that any critical nuclear facilities are far beyond the borders of Punjab. A truncated Pakistan will leave an irate nuclear stump of Punjab and Sindh who would be less willing to negotiate with India but Delhi can find some solace in that the new state would have lesser economic, geographic, and demographic resources to conduct its vendetta against India. A weakened Pakistan would also limit the scale of China’s ambitions in India’s rear.
There are those who argue that the strongest weapon in India’s arsenal is economic growth. India should keep negotiations with Pakistan ongoing while expanding its own options by simultaneously growing the economy. Whatever else might be said about this, it is an unsound theory in the sense that Karl Popper would define the term – it is unfalsifiable. While it seems intuitive that an economy of $5 trillion comes with more options than an economy of $2.5 trillion, the disparity in wealth did not achieve for the United States its aims in Cuba despite decades of sanctions. Similarly, it was not the United States’ stronger economy that secured a nuclear agreement with Iran.
Indeed, an economy growing at nine per cent per annum would be enormously beneficial to India. Yet that will not change the nature of Pakistan’s relations with China, the United States, or terrorist organisations. As Christine Fair argued recently, even Kashmir is merely a symptom – the real problem lies in the conception of the Pakistani state itself.
The latest flashpoint in diplomacy between India and Pakistan has arisen over the role of the Hurriyat. It is argued that they are the Kashmiri voice in the negotiations between Delhi and Islamabad and that consulting with them is an old Pakistani diplomatic tradition. Yet this status has been accepted only by Islamabad. The Modi government has done well in its insistence that separatists have no standing in India’s international affairs, and far from being a minor matter of protocol and decorum, diplomatic recognition is in fact a significant thing.
As columnists impotently bemoan the latest tragedy in India-Pakistan relations and condemn India’s hawkish NSA and government, there will be at least one small voice in the country wondering why Modi Sarkar is still so soft on Pakistan. Even if this entire premise is flawed, can India possibly lose more than it does already?