Leav­ing the Pak­istan Ball

Does an en­gage­ment with Islamabad re­ally work for the Modi govern­ment?

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - Pranab Dhal Sa­manta

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.

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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.

Piece­meal Peace­mak­ing

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

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