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Good Intentions And The Road To Hell: Towards An Effective Indian Policy On Pakistan

27/04/2016 8:19 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Diplomacy is more often about managing problems rather than fixing them outright. It's also often about choosing the lesser of two evils. This holds true when it comes to managing enduring problems between two geopolitical rivals, India and Pakistan. The comprehensive bilateral dialogue process between the two countries has again come under severe strain due to the remarks of Pakistan's high commissioner to India, Abdul Basit. His statement that the "peace process between India and Pakistan in suspended" and the subsequent clarification of the Pakistan foreign office that this is not the case, has highlighted the fragility and precariousness underpinning the ties between India and Pakistan.

The fact remains that if Pakistan does not offer any reciprocity and eventually forbids India's National Investigation Agency (NIA) from visiting Pakistan for investigation of the Pathankot airbase attack, it would take miracle to rebuild the trust between the two sides. It also threatens to derail the biggest diplomatic push yet by the Narendra Modi government on bilateral engagement with Pakistan.

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Prime Minister Modi's latest outreach to Pakistan, which was set in motion with the meeting between the national security advisors of the two countries in December last year and wrapped up by Modi's unexpected stopover in Lahore on Nawaz Sharif's birthday (Christmas Day), was celebrated with great fanfare. The latter was supposed to be the gesture that would help sweep away decades of mistrust between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif too proved that he was willing to take calculated risks. One can remember the political heat that Nawaz was subjected to over the statement issued in the Ufa summit in Russia, which was interpreted by hardliners in Islamabad as a setback for Pakistan's national interests.

The [Kulbhushan Yadav] spy episode smacks of Cold War-era geopolitical thinking, which cannot ensure long-lasting regional stability.

In the midst of this euphoria for the newfound bonhomie and goodwill, the Pathankot air base attack in early January raised serious questions on the viability of the peace process. The brazen attack could have yet again derailed dialogue as the terrorists responsible for the attack were members of the Jaish-e-Mohammed, led by Pakistan-based Masood Azhar. But both governments kept the channels of communication open and refused to allow the Pathankot attack to rupture the glacial process of normalization of relations. It was more than a glimmer of hope.

The bilateral relationship seems to be fast slipping back into a familiar and undesirable pattern. Nawaz Sharif's intentions may be good, but that is not enough.

India's diplomatic pressure led the Nawaz Sharif government to take Azhar into "protective custody," and carry out a raid on the Jaish-e-Mohammed facilities. Furthermore, Pakistan filed a case against "unknown persons" involved in the terror attack. The sharing of intelligence with the Indian national security advisor by his Pakistani counterpart on a possible attack by some Pakistani terrorists was a positive step. But when Pakistani authorities announced the arrest of an Indian national, Kulbhushan Yadav, on charges of espionage in Balochistan for India's external intelligence agency, it became clear that Pakistan's security establishment was bent on spoiling any sustainable attempts at peace with India. The spy episode smacks of Cold War-era geopolitical thinking, which cannot ensure long-lasting regional stability. Religious conservatives, ultra-nationalists and right-wing elements in Pakistani politics have gone out of their way to validate the overblown conspiracy theories propagated by Pakistan's intelligence community about India's so-called 'evil intentions'.

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The bilateral relationship seems to be fast slipping back into a familiar and undesirable pattern. Nawaz Sharif's intentions may be good, but that is not enough. As the saying goes, the way to hell is paved with good intentions. He faces a tough time in reassuring the security establishment about the urgent need for the bilateral dialogue with India. And the Easter day sectarian terror attack in Lahore that killed more than 70 people has made the task more complicated for Nawaz, as the army has launched military operations in Punjab. While the Punjab government quickly sensed public sentiment and decided to go along with the military assault against terrorists on their home turf, this is likely to have a destabilizing impact on Nawaz's political future in the long run. Moreover, politically explosive revelations in the Panama Papers would make the conversion of Nawaz's boldness on India into concrete policy more difficult. Actually, Nawaz is hampered in taking a bold conciliatory step towards India by the requirements of avoiding or minimizing the areas of confrontation with the all-powerful military.

Superior economic and political power does not guarantee that a country's strategic goals will be achieved.

On the other side, Modi will not be able to silence his detractors among the opposition parties and his own die-hard followers on the continuation of a normalization policy with Pakistan without a reciprocal visit to Pakistan by the NIA and stern action against Jaish-e-Mohammed. Pakistan's diversionary tactics are only going to add to public scepticism in India and prove too costly for peace prospects. Ajit Doval's telephonic conversation with his Pakistani counterpart Naseer Khan Janjua, expressing dissatisfaction over Abdul Basit's aggressive remarks, reflects a deep sense of betrayal as well as the Modi government's desperation to save the dialogue process from being hijacked by crafty generals in Rawalpindi.

Superior economic and political power does not guarantee that a country's strategic goals will be achieved. Pakistan lags far behind India in terms of economics, soft power and military capabilities, but continues to threaten India's security interests. Unlike India, Pakistan's army is the central force in politics, having the last word in security and foreign policy. As Stephen P Cohen has rightly remarked in Shooting for a Century: The India-Pakistan Conundrum: "Pakistan is one part military autocracy and one part aspiring civilian government; outsiders cannot always tell which Pakistan they are dealing with."

The Modi government seems incapable of making up its mind on whether it wants to engage with or isolate Pakistan.

Pakistan's security establishment often calculates that the regional balance of power is tilted in its favour and overestimates its prospects for success. In emphasizing confrontation, not friendship or co-existence with India, it is assuming that it can coerce India into concessions. Often the calculus takes into account the political willpower of the two sides to pay costs over the issue of Kashmir. Since coming to power in May 2014, the Modi government has seen several of the red lines drawn by his government being crossed by Pakistan, but has not retaliated with substantial punitive measures.

The Modi government's current Pakistan policy has not been as effective as it could have been. The government seems incapable of making up its mind on whether it wants to engage with or isolate Pakistan. If isolating Pakistan in the international community is the central pillar of Modi's policy, then the reverse has taken place, as the US and China are fully supporting Pakistan to stabilize in Afghanistan through the Quadrilateral Cooperation Group. Despite India's serious concerns and strong reactions, Pakistan is soon going to receive American military assistance, particularly in the form of eight F-16 fighter jets. Another matter to keep an eye on is China's wholehearted support to Pakistan's economic recovery through the much-publicized China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

An effective Indian policy toward Pakistan should abandon oversimplifications and confront the realities of Pakistan's complex domestic political dynamics and ideologically driven foreign policy.

Pakistan is neither fragile nor all-powerful. An effective Indian policy toward Pakistan should abandon such oversimplifications and confront the realities of Pakistan's complex domestic political dynamics and ideologically driven foreign policy. New Delhi needs to be very clear about its priorities if it wants to get anything meaningful done with Islamabad. India must cooperate on issues where common interests are clear, such as countering terrorism and containing Islamist extremism.

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