17/12/2015 11:35 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Blow Hot Blow Cold: Decoding The Modi Government's Shifting Pak Policy

Just days after the tête-à-tête between Indian national security advisor Ajit Doval and his Pakistani counterpart in Bangkok, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj met the Pakistan premier Nawaz Sharif and his advisor on foreign affairs Sartaj Aziz in Islamabad earlier this month. Ms Swaraj must be congratulated for the elegance with which she represented the Indian standpoint in her short visit. She was given the herculean task of resuming the Indo-Pak composite dialogue process, including Kashmir and other lingering border issues within its ambit.

The most recent stance adopted by the Modi government in dealing with Pakistan is a marked departure from its previously held rigid position of limited engagement, within the peripheries of terrorism only. The last round of NSA level talks was aborted amid a harsh exchange of words and differences over the Pakistani delegation meeting Hurriyat leaders. It has been made amply clear by the Pakistani political establishment that the template for the new phase of Indo-Pak discourse will be comprehensive and they will continue to engage with various factions of Hurriyat leaders.

The Modi government's lack of a consistent policy for engaging with Pakistan reveals a strategic flaw in their current political narrative vis-à-vis the neighbouring country.

However, attacks on military and civilian targets by the proxies of the Pak military continue unabated in Kashmir. Given that the ground situation in Kashmir and otherwise has not changed a bit, there seems to be nothing to warrant India's change of heart. This difficult question, which the media from both sides is wondering about, was one of the key reasons behind the curtailment of customary press conference scheduled after the dialogue between the two foreign ministers.

While the resumption of the comprehensive Indo-Pak bilateral dialogue is a welcome change, it also exposes the fault line in the Modi government's strategy of engaging with Pakistan. The advantage the Modi factor generated from the Ufa (Russia) talks has been surrendered by the Indian PM himself with his latest olive branch extended to Pakistan. Under the BJP regime, India has consistently demonstrated its ability to spurn dialogue and lay down tough ground rules, only to resume talks unconditionally, later. In fact, the Pakistan leadership, including its army, has effectively integrated this reality in their core strategy while dealing with India. The Modi government's lack of a consistent policy for engaging with Pakistan reveals a strategic flaw in their current political narrative vis-à-vis the neighbouring country.

However, confused as it may look, the standpoint of the Modi government is also grounded in political pragmatism. Though the decision to break the bilateral deadlock has been taken at the highest echelons of the government, the latest round of peace overtures by both countries also bears the footprint of the White House.

The constant snubbing of Pakistan and aborted dialogues do not align with White House's vision of regional peace and stability in South Asia. In the absence of talks, tensions between India and Pakistan were reaching boiling point and pushing the two nuclear-armed countries to the brink of a dangerous face-off. Much to the worry of the Pentagon, such a stand-off could reverse the recent advances made by the Pak army in their rare bid to quell terrorist sanctuaries in Waziristan, under operation Zarb-e-Azb. Any flare up in the Indo-Pak relationship would have compelled the Pakistan army to mobilise forces for a military build up across the LoC. This would have given the Taliban space and time to regroup and step up attack in Afghanistan, endangering the lives of the US military personnel stationed in the war-torn nation. There was also a looming fear that the pent up Indo-Pak tension may slip into Afghanistan and exacerbate the instability in the war zone. The White House could have been appraised of the above realities during the recent US visit of Pakistani Army chief General Raheel Sharif, resulting perhaps in a surreptitious nudge from the White House to resume the stalled dialogue.

[T]he latest round of peace overtures by both countries also bears the footprint of the White House.

By terminating bilateral dialogue, Indian was also giving leeway to Pakistan to raise the Kashmir issue in the international arena, including the UN. The Pakistan government has further submitted three dossiers to the Pentagon alleging India's tacit role in aiding unrest in Pakistan. The uproar generated by Pakistan in the international circuit doesn't augur well for an India that is aiming to bolster its global image and aspirations. The political stakes are very high for Prime Minister Modi - having articulated his vision of a peaceful, stable and prosperous South Asia, he has to upgrade the level of engagement and be more flexible in accommodating a broader Indo-Pak template for deliberation. The completion of the Bihar election must have given him the elbow room to tone down his muscular brand of engagement with Pakistan and give a renewed diplomatic push to the stalled dialogue.

Managing the relationship with Pakistan is the most important and most difficult foreign-policy test of the Modi government. In the current scenario, advancing the stalled Indo-Pak dialogue better serves the strategic interests of both sides. Bilateral engagement may result in a win-win situation, if both the countries display, in the words of Sushma Swaraj, "the maturity and self-confidence to conduct business with each other and strengthen regional trade and cooperation." The prevailing milieu of hostility and trust deficit stands in the way of realising economic potential. The large-scale integration of trade and commerce would bridge the rift and cause a real momentum leading toward an improvement in the overall state of India-Pakistan relations. This may open door for resolving the convoluted issue of Kashmir.

It also has to be seen if the Pak Army is a party to the latest round of rapprochement between the two archrival nations. Amid growing ceasefire violations and the possibility of a terror attack looming large as per the Indian intelligence sources, it remains to be seen if the talks lead to substantial gains or are simply thrown into cold storage again. It is anticipated that the visit of Prime Minister Modi to participate in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Islamabad will be defining moment in Indo-Pak ties.