, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Narendra Modi’s ‘surprise’ halt in Pakistan on his way back from Afghanistan and Russia has delighted observers worldwide. The prime minister’s visit coincided with the birthday of his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, and the two leaders briefly stopped by the wedding of Sharif’s granddaughter. Apparently, Modi called Sharif the morning of his visit and requested a quick meeting. Modi’s meeting with Sharif lasted two hours but neither side has released a statement on what was discussed between the two prime ministers.

Modi’s visit comes on the back of other high-level meetings between the representatives of the two South Asian rivals. Earlier this month, on December 6, the national security advisors of both nations – India’s Ajit Doval and Pakistan’s newly-appointed Naseer Khan Janjua – met in Bangkok; less than a week later, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Islamabad on December 10 for the Heart of Asia conference where she met with the Pakistani prime minister and Sartaj Aziz, who is now Sharif’s foreign affairs advisor. The prime ministerial visit will be followed by a meeting of the two countries’ foreign secretaries, S. Jaishankar and Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, next month.

The response to Modi’s stopover in Pakistan enjoys the ‘baby effect’ – no one ever tells a mother that her baby is ugly. Similarly, no one ever dismisses attempts at peacemaking, however foolhardy they may be. The items on the agenda between the two countries are obvious as they have remained unchanged for years – Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, Wullar Barrage, Tulbul Navigation Project, economic and commercial cooperation, counter-terrorism, and narcotics control; recent additions may include humanitarian issues, people to people exchanges, and religious tourism.

The immediate benefits to both states are also obvious: for Pakistan, it gives the military time to deal with the blowback of their Islamist flirtations and improved relations with India and a calmer atmosphere might attract greater foreign investment the Pakistani economy desperately needs. Modi’s visit also adds to Sharif’s credibility that his civilian government is more than something that is merely tolerated by the security establishment for public relations purposes. For India, Modi’s economic rejuvenation programme would be greatly aided if some semblance of grudging coexistence could be achieved with Pakistan. For starters, allowing trade between Afghanistan and India at the Wagah-Attari would greatly assist in the economic recovery of the Central Asian republic which has so far been forced to trade with India via Iran. This year, Pakistan allowed the shipment of 100,000 tonnes of wheat from India to Afghanistan via Karachi and both Kabul and Delhi hope that this is an indication of future cooperation from Islamabad. Fortune may also smile upon the gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan: India’s burgeoning economy needs energy and Pakistan stands to make a tidy sum via transit fees. The domestic image of the prime minister and his party stand to gain somewhat by making it harder for critics to paint either with an anti-Muslim paintbrush in light of the administration’s friendly overtures to Pakistan.

The zero-sum nature of India-Pakistan relations, however, does not lead one to an optimistic conclusion. In fact, India has been down this path with Pakistan on several occasions in the past with nothing to show for the effort. Little has changed since those attempts and one must wonder to what one owes Modi’s latest gambit. For once, the Twitter trolls are correct in asking what has changed since August 2014 when the Modi government abruptly cancelled talks with Pakistan over the latter’s meeting with Kashmiri separatists, and again almost exactly a year later when Pakistan called off talks after India demanded an assurance from the Pakistani delegation that it would not meet with Kashmiri separatists.

It has been suggested that there has been international pressure brought to bear upon both sides for resuming talks. This may be true but it is worth recalling that this pressure is fickle and foolish, attempting to cast the situation in Afghanistan as a struggle between the “good Taliban” and the “bad Taliban.” The only thing worth considering about this pressure is its deep pockets and the influence it can lease. It is this same international pressure that has kept Pakistan a viable state and supported its military, ostensibly against the Taliban but in reality against its eastern neighbour.

Castigating the prime minister’s well-intentioned yet ultimately meaningless gesture is not, however, to suggest that India take an overtly militaristic stance. India must continue to repel Pakistani infiltrators at the border and thwart its attempts at fomenting terrorism as it does now. This is an unsatisfactory state of affairs that is the reality of the neighbourhood. However, Delhi has been busy developing its relations the countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and it should continue to do so without placing undue importance on Islamabad’s spoiling tantrums. Road and rail networks, ease of travel, shipping hubs, educational links, and trade between the nations of the region will build them into a community of nations in which Pakistan’s asymmetric thinking will be an unwelcome outlier. If India can serve as the dynamo of regional economic growth, it will be to the benefit of these countries and they will be pulled into a tighter and co-dependent network with Delhi. Islamabad will find it a lonelier world and be an increasing burden on its only patron, China.

An Indian policy of simply ignoring its western neighbour and making matters difficult economically where it can is not an unknown strategy of international politics. The Stimson and Hallstein doctrines, Beijing’s One China policy, and the United States’ refusal to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem comes immediately to mind – not identical situations, but analogies seldom are. Less severe than a blockade or diplomatic de-recognition, nonchalance nonetheless sends a clear diplomatic signal to the world that Delhi will not be held hostage to Rawalpindi’s internal compulsions or short-sightedness. Obviously the larger and more promising economy, India has the power to lift the region along with it and can leave its deformed twin behind without much difficulty.

One hopes that the slow simmer of being a pariah will compel the boys in Rawalpindi to re-evaluate their strategy vis-à-vis India, not to mention their own national self-imagination. The cost of remaining an outlier will be steep and increase over time if India can successfully integrate into the region’s sociopolitical framework. Ignoring the squeals for attention from Islamabad will allow India to focus on more important issues – its economy, relations with its neighbours, and the real threat from across the Himalayas. Islamabad’s petulance will surely come but one must ask what more can they do to India that they are not already? Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal continues to grow at the fastest pace in the world and Islamabad has a stated policy of the first use of tactical nuclear weapons against India; the Islamic republic continues to be a safe haven for terrorists operating against India, one where some of the most wanted men in the world such as Hafiz Saeed, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, and Dawood Ibrahim are afforded state protection.

Given the severe constraint on India’s military options against Pakistan’s asymmetric allies, the only recourse is to act economically and diplomatically. Outspending Pakistan on defence modernisation while simultaneously allowing them to fester in an internal instability of their own making will force Rawalpindi to take responsibility for their actions thus far. Furthermore, with less government – and public – attention spent on coming up with ways to placate an irresponsible and flailing state, by not just insisting that the United States and other powers de-hyphenate India and Pakistan but doing so ourselves, Modi Sarkar might find that it is left with more intellectual and diplomatic capital to pursue goals that might actually yield something. India-Pakistan relations have only been about theatrics since May 1998 and it is time Indian leaders realised this and moved on.