Dialogue  April-June, 2015, Volume 16 No. 4


India, Pakistan and the Mirage of Normalisation of Relations

Sushant Sareen*



The quest for normalisation of relations with Pakistan is arguably a fundamental problem in India’s Pakistan policy. The experience of the last seven decades should have informed Indian policy makers that this desire is akin to chasing a mirage, and just as fruitless. In fact, as long as India continues to hanker for normal relations, it will continue to go round and round in endless circles and keep repeating the same mistakes and keep suffering the same consequences that it has been since Partition. What India must strive for is managing the Pakistan problem and severely reducing, if not entirely eliminating, Pakistan’s ability to either counter-balance India or even keep India off-balance through use of ‘non-state actors’ and asymmetric warfare.                                                                               
            When the BJP government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office, there was an expectation that India’s Pakistan policy would undergo a complete overhaul. The romanticism and nostalgia that most of Mr Modi’s predecessors harboured about Pakistan would finally become a thing of the past. Henceforth, India’s approach to Pakistan would be more business-like, hard-headed, cold-hearted and calculated. The policy would be guided more in the pursuit of India’s interests instead of being formed to accommodate the interests of other powers. Mr Modi’s approach to Pakistan would be robust and based on realism rather than on symbolism or for that matter idealism.                                                            
         Alas, after a very good start, the Modi government seems to have lost its way on how to deal with Pakistan. The sheer vacuity of Modi’s Pakistan policy was apparent when a senior member of the BJP revealed that the government had “taken a decision to start a cricket series [with Pakistan] to improve our relations.” This was as foolish a statement as someone saying that lighting candles on Wagah border helps in improving relations between the two countries. Even as the Modi government was speaking about resuming cricket with Pakistan, the Pakistanis through their Taliban proxies attacked a guest house in Kabul killing five Indians. The attack was aimed at the Indian ambassador who was supposed to be at the guest house at the time of the attack. Around the same time last year, Mr. Modi invited his Pakistani counterpart for his swearing-in ceremony. The Pakistani RSVP was in the form of an attack on the Indian Consulate in Herat. Quite clearly, when it comes to Pakistan, it appears that Modi like all other Indian policy makers and political leaders has shut his eyes to the reality of an inveterately hostile and jihadised Pakistan.                                                           
          There are two distinct phases in the Modi government’s approach to Pakistan. In the first phase, a new template seem to be emerging on how India would deal with Pakistan. By inviting Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in, Modi sent a clear message that he was open to engaging Pakistan, albeit with caveats which included zero-tolerance for visiting Pakistani dignitaries hobnobbing with Kashmiri separatists. He was also to cooperating with Pakistan on the trade front. But here again, it was made clear to Pakistan that India wouldn’t allow shifting of goalposts on trade agreements. India announced that trade between the two countries would have to be on the basis of the 2012 agreement and not the February 2014 agreement. Terrorism was yet another red-line that was laid down and the posturing of the Modi government signalled that its response would be very different from the business-as-usual response of the Manmohan Singh government.                                               
          It wasn’t long before the Pakistanis tried to test the resolve of Modi’s government. They first violated the ceasefire in early August 2014. The robust response from the Indian forces effectively disabused the Pakistanis of the utility of this tactic. The LoC firing was followed by the Pakistanis testing the red-line of meeting the Kashmiri separatists by holding ‘consultations’ with them on the eve of the visit of the Indian Foreign Secretary. By cancelling the visit, the Modi government sent out a strong signal that it will not allow such activities. In September and later in November 2014, the Pakistanis tried to see if India would soften its stand and seek a meeting with their PM on the sidelines of UN General Assembly and the SAARC Summit. When Modi didn’t seek a meeting, it sent another strong signal.                                                        
          By the end of last year, it seemed as though a tough new policy was being formulated by the government. But the usual suspects in India started clamouring for a change because according to them the policy was not working. This was utter nonsense because such a policy takes years, even decades before it starts showing results. In the midst of all this came the Obama visit. Suddenly everything changed and the Modi government made a complete and unseemly U-turn on Pakistan. Days after Obama left, Modi called Nawaz Sharif using the excuse of the World Cup cricket match between India and Pakistan and informed Nawaz Sharif that the Indian Foreign Secretary would visit Islamabad as part of a ‘SAARC Yatra.’                                                                     
           In the blink of an eye,  this ill-thought out step released all the pressure that India had started building on Pakistan and which had unsettled Pakistan because it wasn’t sure any more as to India’s reaction. The way the Pakistanis saw it, for all his posturing, Mr Modi was no different from his predecessors, when it came to Pakistan. All that Pakistan needed to do was hold their nerve and sooner rather than later the Indian’s would succumb and come scurrying back to re-engage with them. And now by giving his nod to holding a cricket series with Pakistan, partly because senior members of his government and his party tend to put the interests of the ‘republic of BCCI’ above the interests of India, Modi was only compounding the mistake of ‘SAARC Yatra.’

          What he hopes to achieve with this pendulum policy on Pakistan is not clear, even less so given that there has been a steady escalation of venomous anti-India rhetoric and propaganda from the Pakistani side over the last many months. Far from appreciating his gestures, Pakistan has started blaming India for everything from being behind the growing presence of the Islamic State (IS) in the AfPak region to being the sponsor of al Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent, from backing the insurgency in Balochistan to funding the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, from ‘stealing’ Pakistan’s water to training the MQM cadres to spread terror in Karachi. In the face of such a State sponsored propaganda campaign, and the imminent possibility that Pakistan will not only ratchet up the export of terrorism into Kashmir but also in rest of India, Mr Modi’s Pakistan policy simply doesn’t make any sense.                                                        
            For their part, the Pakistanis keep saying that Mr. Modi hasn’t reciprocated the initiative taken by Nawaz Sharif to improve relations with India. The problem with this formulation is that apart from accepting Mr Modi’s invitation and making friendly statements in the first year of his third term (2013), there is practically nothing on ground to suggest that Nawaz Sharif has either tried to break the logjam in relations with India or done anything to address India’s very serious concerns regarding Pakistani policy towards India. There has been a lot of verbiage but nothing tangible from Nawaz Sharif’s side. Even the trade agreement negotiated between the Manmohan Singh government and Asif Zardari regime in 2012 was sought to be changed and despite the fact that Manmohan Singh went the extra mile to agree to a trade deal heavily loaded in Pakistan’s favour, the Nawaz Sharif government refused to sign the deal under pressure from the military establishment. On the issue of terrorism, there has been no satisfaction given to India. In fact, anti-India terrorist groups which work in conjunction and under the command of the military establishment have been functioning pretty much with impunity in Nawaz Sharif’s time. The hostile propaganda on Kashmir has once again spiked as has the domestic rhetoric.                                    
          The way the Pakistanis see it, the regional and international situation is moving in their favour and so they have no reason to be reasonable with India. This sense grows out of three things: One, with Ashraf Ghani throwing in his lot with Pakistan and kowtowing to all of Pakistan’s demands, the Pakistanis feel that they have managed to create conditions where India will no longer have any play left in Afghanistan. As a result, any fear or apprehension they had because of Indian presence in Afghanistan is no longer there. Second, with the growing Pakistan-Afghanistan closeness and coordination, the Pakistanis think they have managed to woo the Americans, who are now leaning in their favour at least as far as the AfPak equation is concerned. The re-engagement with the US has also reduced the threat perception from India. Finally, with China promising to sink in tens of billions of dollars, the Pakistanis feel that the economic bind in which they were caught and which was one of the reasons why some people in Pakistan wanted to reach out to India is no longer an operative factor. In other words, they can ignore the economic dimension of relations with India. Whether these assumptions are correct or are delusions is something that time will tell. But for now, there is no real incentive for Pakistan to adopt a reasonable attitude towards India.     In the face of these realities and the imminent possibility that Pakistan will not only ratchet up the export of terrorism into Kashmir but also in rest of India, Mr Modi’s Pakistan policy simply doesn’t make any sense. If anything, the unseemly U-turns and unfathomable softening on Pakistan has not only undone all the good work that was done in the first few months, but worse, destroyed the credibility of the Modi government, which in turn will make it very difficult and uphill task for it to play hard-ball next time. Indeed, for all the other accomplishments of the Modi government’s foreign policy initiatives, his Pakistan policy is a blot on an otherwise more dynamic and purposeful engagement with the international community. India would be much better served by ignoring and isolating Pakistan rather than engaging and emboldening it. Statesmanship isn’t just about improving relations with potential partners, it is also about isolating, emasculating and incapacitating existing enemies, ideally and preferably without firing a shot, but if necessary by whatever means required. The day Mr Modi understands this immutable principle of diplomacy, India will have a proper Pakistan policy.

*Sushant Sareen, Senior Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation, and Consultant, Pakistan Project, IDSA. He writes extensively and is an authority on the subject.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

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