External Affairs

It’s Time for Modi to Directly Engage with Pakistan


DOUBLE BYPASS: Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and his Pakistani counterpart…

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…Nawaz Sharif avoid eye contact twice at the SAARC summit in Kathmandu. PTI

Almost two decades after the India-Pakistan Composite Dialogue was invented, both the frame-work and the relationship face a stalemate of sorts. India will not resume that dialogue, which has eight boxes of bilateral issues, until Pakistan shows good faith in curbing terror, particularly by punishing the perpetrators of the 26/11 attack in Mumbai; Pakistan continues claiming it too is a victim of terror, including that sponsored by India, and that resolution of the Jammu and Kashmir issue is key to better relations.

Pakistan’s paranoia emanates from its western border with Afghanistan i.e. the Durand Line established in 1893, being porous and unacceptable to Afghanistan. This feeds into its approach to its eastern border with India where, to quote their Chief of Army Staff Gen Raheel Sharif, there is the “unfinished agenda of partition”. The Afghan link to India-Pakistan relations goes back to 1948 itself, when the raiders pushed into Kashmir by Pakistan were largely Pashtun. Once again, terrorism commenced in J&K only after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988, freed-up Punjabi militants for exporting terror to India.

The decade-long US presence in Afghanistan ensured that India-Pakistan rivalry there was contained. It also constrained Indian retaliation to Pakistan-sponsored terror attacks as Washington wanted to keep the Pakistani army focussed on their western front. India, in turn, stuck in Afghanistan to development projects, committing nearly $2 billion of aid. Pakistan kept imagining an Indian hand in the Baluchistan militancy and the rise of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which targeted the Pakistani state. The intemperate remarks of the Indian Defence Minister Parrikar, about fighting terror with terror and then likening Pakistan’s reaction to imbibing sharp chillies, have only provided Pakistan the peg they needed to hang their charges on.

A good start…

Narendra Modi’s penchant for the dramatic and non-conventional conduct of foreign policy became evident at the very start when he invited the leaders of the other seven SAARC countries for his swearing-in. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s presence and seemingly positive meeting with Modi seemed to herald a new beginning to a stalled relationship. But since then, bilateral relations have been up and down, the latter being more pronounced. The announcement that the foreign secretaries of the two countries would meet to take the process further was seen as a sign from the Modi government that the fundamental problems stalling the relationship and preventing the resumption of talks had been overcome.

Within Pakistan, however, the political situation deteriorated from mid-2014 as Imran Khan of Tehrik-e-Insaaf party and the Canada-returned activist Tahir ul Qadri sought dissolution of the National Assembly and the resignation of the Nawaz government alleging electoral fraud. The Pakistani army too decided to escalate tension across the Line of Control and even the international border by increasing breaches of the cease-fire which had held since the last part of Musharraf presidency. The Pakistani army’s role in domestic affairs enlarged as Sharif sought their help to quell the civil disturbance.

While both the LoC situation and the political standoff in Islamabad constituted valid grounds for postponing the Indian foreign secretary’s visit, the government chose to call off the talks citing the Pakistani High Commissioner’s meeting with Hurriyat leaders. The Hurriyat meeting, though provocative on the eve of bilateral talks, was not unprecedented. A perception was created that Modi was playing to the domestic gallery as elections were around the corner in the crucial state of Maharashtra and, subsequently, in J&K.

Lack of clarity

Since then, the government has talked of fighting cease-fire violations by heavier counteraction. The PM dodged his Pakistani counterpart at the UN, ignored him on the first day of the SAARC summit in Kathmandu only to relent and talk to him during the retreat, and finally sent the new foreign secretary, S Jaishankar to Islamabad under the alibi of a SAARC outreach by combining the Pakistan visit with trips to other South Asian nations. Cricketing links were resurrected as a possibility but quickly dropped after the public furore in India over a Pakistani court’s decision to allow the master conspirator behind 26/11, Zaki-ur Rahman Lakhvi, to walk out of jail.

What then should India’s Pakistan policy be? First, it is generally accepted that the Composite Dialogue in its present form is unworkable or even outdated. Issues like terror, water and Afghanistan assume greater prominence today than was given to them in the old format. Moreover, the simultaneous discussion of confidence-building measures and disputes is like a three-legged race but with the two runners out of sync. Pakistan holds back on doable items that can build mutual trust i.e. trade, people-to-people engagement etc and India cannot yield to the Pakistani desire for immediate resolution of disputes likeSir Creek,  Siachen and particularly J&K. In the meanwhile, Pakistan being both a victim and a perpetrator of terror, wallows in self-pity rather than facing the demon in all its manifestations, including regime-friendly groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Simplistic view

One view is to ignore Pakistan, harden Indian defences against terrorism, bypass Pakistan via Iran for Central Asian and Afghan connectivity, build a missile defence and nuclear triad as nuclear deterrent and let Pakistan wrestle with its demons till the outcome is clear. This is premised on the belief that Pakistan faces inevitable economic decline and unsustainable ethnic crises which may either force its army to sue for peace with India or simply keep it embroiled in debilitating internal wars.

This simplistic approach ignores the revival of Pakistani economy, the impact that $46 billion of Chinese infrastructure building may have on Pakistani finances, the rebalancing by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani of his nation’s relations with India and Pakistan, and the Saudi unhappiness over Pakistan tilting towards the Iran-China axis and not militarily responding to its urging for Pakistani intervention in Yemen. The Taliban summer offensive in Afghanistan, despite the Pakistani commitment to bring the group to the negotiating table, may mark the beginning of a new kind of militant leadership in Afghanistan that could be utilising the Al Qaeda-ISIS rivalry.

Combined with this is the renewed attempt by Pakistan to pump LeT operatives into the Kashmir valley to tap the emerging militant and pro-Pakistan public rhetoric after BJP’s dalliance with the Peoples Democratic Party. As in the 1990s, the external in Af-Pak is meeting the internal in J&K, with the additional danger of ISIS influence finding hold elsewhere in India where a section of Muslim youth is alienated.

Outflank, but engage

The appointment of a former Director, Intelligence Bureau as envoy for Af-Pak and West Asia indicates that the Modi government is looking at the entire Islamic world to India’s West through an intelligence-security prism and not a diplomatic-cultural construct. Modi’s Pakistan policy is conditioned by a similar mind-set of talking but not negotiating, while building security pressure points and counter alliances. Inevitably, such a policy will have flip-flops like the yes-no on cricketing ties, as the PM lurches between his pragmatic instincts and the logic of Hindutva nationalism. What is needed is a clear political outreach to Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Israel. That can only be done by Modi himself and not by envoys. Into this has to be fitted the Afghanistan-Pakistan sub-set, as that region has great influence on Pakistani thinking and financial security. China alone will not be able to balance the combined might of the GCC-plus in conditioning Pakistani behaviour.

However, this outflanking move has to be underpinned by direct engagement with Pakistan – to reconstruct the dialogue format  with innovative ideas on both CBMs and dispute resolution. For instance, it is inadequate to simply decry elections in Gilgit Baltistan. India must raise awareness of the demographic invasion of the Shia-dominated areas and link this to the resolution of the Kashmir issue. Can Pakistan even think of a UN-sponsored plebiscite there, minus the intruding Sunni population? Strategically, that part of Kashmir is even more vital than the Kashmir valley as it connects Pakistan to China and cuts off India from Central Asia.

That is why Indian policy makers who talk of a new Asian security order must not limit themselves to the Asia Pacific. It is time they expanded the field of play to include Central and West Asia.

K.C. Singh is a former Indian ambassador.