Leaving the Pakistan Ball
Does an engagement with Islamabad really work for the Modi government?
Is making peace with Pakistan any longer a primary or even a necessary strategic objective? It’s been a while since anyone scrutinised this question. Somehow, the primacy accorded to this endeavour has come to be seen as a sort of a given, also diligently pursued in different ways over the last two decades: starting with I K Gujral, then Atal Bihari Vajpayee, followed by Manmohan Singh.
Narendra Modi, however, seems to be making a significant shift. His government is drawing a fundamental distinction between making peace and appearing to make peace. The point being to not let substantive developments become a necessary condition to the projection of peacemaking. That way, at least the audiences — particularly the western powers — are not provoked into ratcheting up pressure.
Take Modi’s sudden stopover at Lahore. The principal purpose that optics served was to remove the whole drama built up around an Indian PM’s visit, especially the pressure around producing high-value deliverables or defining Kashmir accord.
The guiding principle that Singh — and probably even Vajpayee — followed premised that India would always be constrained in its ambition to become a leading global power if it continues to have unsettled boundaries to its north, east and west. Particularly in Pakistan’s case, it was felt that an unsettled dispute in Kashmir would always give Islamabad enough play to drag New Delhi down to neighbourhood tussles from the player’s table at the global centre-stage.
This logic now seems to have been turned on its head. Not that settling disputes is no longer a political endeavour. The Modi government settled the boundary with Bangladesh, completing Manmohan Singh’s unfinished task. But its salience and primacy are somewhat challenged, particularly when it comes to Pakistan. And that has a lot to do with the political assessment that both the people and the system have got used to living in conflict with Pakistan.
Even Singh experienced a slice of this during his term when India and Pakistan were close to reaching a deal on Siachen under his watch. It flowed from his own vision to turn the place into a mountain of peace. Both sides assiduously worked out a troop withdrawal plan and a way to authenticate where these troops were before the pullback. The key issue to address through this complex process was to ensure that both sides duly recognised each other’s existing troop positions on an agreed map.
While diplomats thought they had stitched up a workable deal, the problem actually came from the Indian Army. This flew in the face of the basic political objective to bring back troops posted at sub-zero temperatures, something that everyone thought the army would welcome, since the conditions are far more arduous on the Indian side.
But what decision-makers didn’t realise was that over the years, the army had learnt to cope with the situation. It found ways to maintain its troops, built well-oiled supply lines, found the right equipment and clothing, besides devising the correct regimen that would keep its soldiers medically fit.
So, when the UPA government asked the question, the issue before the army wasn’t its arduous existence in Siachen, but whether it would be able to reoccupy those posts in case Pakistan reneged. The point about authenticating maps didn’t make any sense to the military because they had become relatively ‘used to’ the staying in Siachen.
It was the new status quo. It also dawned upon the then-government that there could be many reasons to have peace in Siachen, including, perhaps, environmental. But hardship to troops was no longer the main driver for any early settlement. The larger picture is beginning to look similar.
Pakistan-sponsored terror continues to be a problem. Any government has to be responsive to this challenge. But no Indian government has ever lost an election recently because of a terror attack. If anything, the pattern suggests that voters lean towards the incumbent to give terror perpetrators a tough message of stability. 26/11 was one such example. Which means the emphasis has to be on a credible response. Will a Kashmir settlement be enough to ensure dismantling the terror infrastructure directed at India?
There is no sure answer. Which only drops the incentive for peacemaking in New Delhi. There is a growing view that peacemaking actually attracts terror violence. Hawks in the system — quite accurately — reel out instances of terror attacks following peace moves. Undoubtedly, peace is always a difficult political project. But for Modi, who is the first Indian prime minister to be born after the Partition, the matrix is different from a Singh or a Vajpayee.
Yet, the perception of peacemaking shouldn’t suffer. From Washington, London and Beijing to Riyadh, Dubai and Tehran, there should be enough to show and tell. Why? Because doing business with them is far more important to New Delhi than with Islamabad.
Prime Minister Modi seems to have embraced this as plainly as that. The challenge is to make these countries feel that doing business with India is far more significant than pedalling the Pakistan argument beyond, say, just form’s sake. Roughly put, that’s also, perhaps, the core of this government’s Pakistan policy.
And then, nothing happened