India may be dealing with Pakistan less as a policy imperative and more as a pathology. It is entirely possible that the policy is to not have a policy. If Modi’s approach on Pakistan survives after him, it will be a success
Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s detractors have persisted with the canard that he swept into office on the back of a strident anti-Pakistan platform, the fact of the matter is that Pakistan constituted a very small part of his campaign, the bulk of which was actually focussed on governance, economy and development issues.
Even so, there was little doubt that he will not be following in the footsteps of his predecessors when it came to dealing with Pakistan. Unlike most of his predecessors, Modi never had any starry-eyed notions, much less nostalgia or romance, about Pakistan. It was therefore to be expected that he would be far more hard-nosed and perhaps hard line on Pakistan.
But Modi surprised everyone with his first major foreign policy initiative even before he took over as Prime Minister – inviting the heads of government of all SAARC countries for his swearing-in ceremony. The widely held perception at that time was that this was a cover for reaching out to Pakistan. In retrospect, it appears as though, before Prime Minister Modi gave into his natural instinct and inclination to ‘speak to Pakistan in the language it understood’, he wanted to explore the possibility of a détente with Pakistan. And in doing so, he even went a bit overboard in trying to reach out to Pakistan. In his first two years in office, Modi tried at least half a dozen times to take the initiative to put ties back on track every time they got derailed.
From picking up the phone to convey Ramzan greetings to sending his foreign secretary on a visit (again, to all SAARC countries!), from agreeing on a roadmap for talks at Ufa in Russia to walking up to Nawaz Sharif in Paris and initiating a meeting between the National Security Advisors of the two countries, and from his impromptu visit to Lahore to allowing a Pakistani investigating team to visit the Pathankot air base to investigate the terror attack by Pakistani terrorists, if there is anything Modi cannot be faulted for, it is that he tried his best to improve relations with Pakistan. What he can be faulted for is trying to replicate the approach of his predecessors and expecting to succeed where they failed.
The eyewash of an investigation by Pakistan into the Pathankot terror attack was Modi’s epiphany on the treacherous nature of the neighbour. This was the point when he changed gears and hardened his stand. The Uri terror attack in which nearly 20 soldiers were killed was the last straw. Modi knew that his credibility as a leader was at stake and not doing anything – his predecessors had mastered the art of retaliating by threatening to retaliate, and then piping down – was no longer an option.
The ‘Surgical Strikes’ that followed was a bold and daring move, but also a risky gamble which could easily spiral out of control. But when Pakistanis denied the strikes, it was clear that their bluff has been called. If Modi has proved one thing in the last four years, it is that his capacity for risk-taking is unparalleled, more so when he is convinced of something. In his case, firm conviction in the righteousness of his action sometimes means that he doesn’t bother too much about the possible consequences of his actions – for instance, demonetisation. This also means that, if the Pakistanis cross some undefined red lines then he could well be inclined to call their bluff again, even on the nuclear issue. While this has put the region on something of a hair-trigger situation, it has also changed the old paradigm in which Pakistan felt it could get away with mass murder and mayhem in India with impunity. The element of uncertainty that has been introduced by the ‘surgical strikes’ means that the Pakistanis are suddenly not quite sure of India’s reaction to any provocation from their side.
Although the cross-border strikes haven’t been repeated, the threat continues to hang over Pakistan’s head. But this is only one prong of India’s new approach towards Pakistan. Retaliation to infiltration across the Line of Control continues to extract a heavy price from Pakistan in terms of both blood and treasure. The Pakistanis are clearly hurting but trying to put up a brave face. This means that they will keep trying to needle India, not just through their puerile propaganda campaigns internationally (which is proving to be utterly fruitless since there is no buyer for the Pakistan’s advocacy in favour of Islamist terrorists masquerading as ‘freedom fighters’) but also by trying to keep the pot of terrorism simmering in Kashmir. For now, at least this is little more than a nuisance for India, and is certainly not an existential threat or even a grave provocation that must invite a cross-border attack every time a terrorist incident takes place.
At the diplomatic level, India has become proactive to increase the pressure on Pakistan. The FATF ‘grey listing’ is certainly a feather in Modi’s cap. Every available international forum is now being used to show Pakistan for what it is – a terror-sponsoring country. What is more, there is an unmistakable contempt in the way India deals with or refers to Pakistan in the international forums. At the bilateral level, the government seems to have woken up to the fiction of people-to-people contacts as a way to normalise ties. Because it had acquired the status of a self-evident truth, no one ever really bothered to do even a rudimentary audit of the efficacy and utility of the people-to-people policy in building a constituency of peace in Pakistan. The realisation that this was a Mug’s game has meant that this fairy tale of people-to-people contacts has been put in something of a deep freeze, which means a very restricted visa policy, no bilateral cricket, no fat contracts in Bollywood, and so on and so forth.
As a result of these measures, many Pakistanis and their lobbyists among so-called Indian liberals claim that bilateral relations are the worst they have been in decades. The reality is that relations have been terrible throughout the last 70 years. The only difference is that for the first time India has started dealing with Pakistan in a language and in a manner that neither the Pakistanis nor their Indian lackeys ever expected from an Indian government. Indian apologists for Pakistan had internalised appeasement and soft-pedalling as the way ahead with their favourite country. Consequently, while they showed great understanding and empathy to Pakistani concerns, it became the hallmark of liberalism to either ignore or appear apologetic about India’s concerns, almost as though these were of no consequence. If the fact that such pusillanimity has no place in the Modi government’s way of dealing with Pakistan means relations have touched rock bottom, then just too bad.
There remain, however, two major problems in Modi’s approach to Pakistan. The first is that there is no clearly articulated policy framework on Pakistan, or for that matter any clear definition of success in whatever the policy is. Much of what goes for policy is really a sort of knee jerk response to Pakistani provocations. It is nothing if not reactive rather than being proactive. In many ways, it is a kind of tit-for-tat policy in which India gives back better than it got. While this might satisfy the impulse to give the Pakistanis a bloody nose, it doesn’t really double up for a coherent and cogent policy. Of course, it is entirely possible that the policy is to not have a policy. Or it could be that the policy is to continue with the traditional non-policy of ad hocism. If indeed this is the case, then it means that India is dealing with Pakistan less as a policy imperative and more as a pathology.
The second problem is that the Modi government hasn’t really built a broad political and social consensus on how India should deal with Pakistan. The current muscular approach towards Pakistan appears to be that of this government, not that of the nation. The BJP and its allies certainly own it, even revel in it, but the rest of the polity for a variety of reasons, doesn’t quite endorse it unequivocally. Part of the reason for this is the politicisation of the policy. Making Pakistan a political football in the national political discourse means that instead of treating it as a problem of national security, it is treated as an issue for political point-scoring. If the government cannot resist the temptation of chest thumping every time it socks one back to the Pakistanis, the opposition will perforce raise questions on everything the government does to pull it down a peg or two, or even question its ‘machismo’ on Pakistan. The other part is, of course, the issue of political and even ideological disagreements on how to handle the Pakistan problem.
Ideally, the Modi government should have put in place systems, structures and strategies that would make it politically very difficult for any future government to slide back to the pusillanimous policy on Pakistan. But that hasn’t happened. Therefore, there are doubts on whether the current approach will survive the Modi government. Will Modi’s successors once again turn the clock back and repeat the same old failed policy cycle of engagement–propitiation–estrangement, with the same result that was obtained over the last seven decades? Or will they improve upon what Modi has done and forge a robust national policy which won’t change either with governments or with seasons, but only with changes in objective conditions on the ground?
As things stand, the only metric on which Modi’s Pakistan policy can be judged won’t be on how effective it has been in stopping the flow of terrorism into India, but whether it endures after Modi is no longer in office. If Modi’s approach on Pakistan survives after him, it will be a success; else it will be yet another episode in the long and desultory history of India’s relations with Pakistan.