The Modi government needs to understand that unbridled rhetoric, poor messaging and the failure to build public opinion in line with its mood swings can only land badly, like the unclaimed and splintered drone
The on-going fracas over the decision to resume contact between India and Pakistan at the highest level proves that strongly articulated red-lines on any issue by political leaders – while campaigning or in opposition – can come back to haunt them when in power. Thanks to his sabre-rattling during the campaign, Narendra Modi as Prime Minister was expected to adopt a more muscular foreign policy towards Pakistan, one that would break the cycle of talks-and-terror.
The invitation to SAARC leaders for his swearing-in surprised the world even as the BJP began marketing Modi as a new Indian statesman in the image of Nehru or Vajpayee. The subsequent announcement of foreign secretary-level talks was seen as a sign that bilateral relations were returning to the dialogue process, one whose pace and nature would presumably be determined by contemporary reality and not necessarily by the 1997 “composite dialogue” format. Unfortunately, the talks never took place. They were called-off not due to persistent cease-fire violations or the fact that the Nawaz Sharif government in Islamabad was besieged by the combined hordes of Messrs Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri at the time but because Pakistan’s High Commissioner met the Hurriyat leaders.
India already had multiple preconditions for normalising relations with Pakistan i.e. prosecution of the 26/11 perpetrators, the dismantling of Pakistan’s India specific terror-machine and maintenance of the cease-fire, largely intact since 2004. To these, a new red line was added, that there be no more contact between the Hurriyat and Pakistan – contact which had occurred multiple times before, including just before the 2014 Lok Sabha election.
Modi’s hide-and-seek with his Pakistani counterpart at multilateral meetings like the SAARC summit in Kathmandu only supplemented the public perception that his government was awaiting Pakistani compliance with these red lines. It is possible that Modi stepped-back from engagement with Pakistan because he felt Nawaz Sharif was unable to control his army and prevent cease-fire violations and had been further enfeebled by the popular protests. It is equally possible that with elections approaching in Maharashtra and Jammu and Kashmir, Hurriyat-bashing was seen as electorally useful.
Modi himself used his Bangladesh visit and the 1971 defeat of Pakistani army to score political points against Pakistan, which “statesmen’ generally avoid so as not to embarrass a host nation. Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Rajyavendra Singh Rathore then took matters to their illogical extreme when he said the Indian army’s Myanmar counter-terrorism operation was a warning to India’s neighbour to the West. The signal was heard in Islamabad, where the National Assembly passed a resolution berating such sabre-rattling.
Taken together, the sum total of the Modi government’s political conduct since the foreign secretary-level talks were called off in August 2014 has been to re-enforce the importance of its red lines as the basis for future India-Pakistan engagement.
At Ufa, the request for a meeting with Nawaz Sharif went from India – as Pakistan’s Sartaj Aziz has confirmed officially – and not vice versa. The joint statement addressed Indian red-lines by fine-tuning old diplomatic mechanisms and not by creating new ones. The 26/11 trial was to be expedited by discussing “ways and means”, illustrated as supplying additional evidence, including voice samples. Terror per se was to now be handled at the National Security Adviser level, ramped-up from the original Manmohan-Musharraf Anti Terror Mechanism of 2006, which was at the level of additional secretaries. Peace and tranquillity at the border was to be assured by meetings of the DGMOs of the two armies and senior officers of the paramilitary forces manning the international border.
The problem with the Composite Dialogue is that it rather impractically seeks to simultaneously address confidence-building measures and dispute resolution. Since 1997, we have seen that when progress on Kashmir or Siachen does not keep pace, as indeed it cannot, with normalisation of trade or easier visas or connectivity, Pakistan tends to hold back on the CBM “doables”. At Ufa, as Sartaj Aziz explained later in Pakistan, there appeared to be an understanding on breaking this logjam by moving the disputes to the back-channel, as was done during the Musharraf-Manmohan period, for resolution at a pace that satisfies the political constraints of both sides. This would then allow confidence-building measures to be expedited, many of which are already ready for implementation.
Unfortunately, the Ufa script began to unravel as soon as Pakistani delegation returned home. In order to blunt charge of having climbed down from their earlier muscular stance, sources close to Modi began claiming that “Kashmir” was not discussed at all and that nominating Ajit Doval, the NSA, as the interlocutor was intended to keep the bilateral focus solely on terrorism. Due to this official Indian spin, or perhaps independently, an uproar started in Pakistan over why “Kashmir” was omitted from the joint statement. Sartaj Aziz had to issue a public statement explaining that Pakistan’s core interests had not been compromised and that the phrase “all outstanding issues” included Kashmir above all. The Pakistani prosecutor in the 26/11 case muddied the waters further by stating that he was not moving any application for the “voice samples” of 26/11 accused Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi. That started a political slugfest in India on what exactly had Pakistan agreed to do.
Clearly, the public narrative in both countries, after the bonhomie of a statement jointly read out by the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan, spun out of control due to the Modi government’s desire to demonstrate there had been no retreat from any red-lines and the Pakistani counter that the Ufa meeting itself, held at India’s initiative, was a belated recognition by New Delhi that Islamabad could not be brow-beaten or isolated. The Pakistani military then jumped into the fray by first claiming it had downed an Indian drone at the border and then accusing the Indian side of a cease-fire breach.
Whether the drone in question belonged to some Pakistani state agency or to militants looking for soft spots in the LoC/international border for infiltration, or was used by some Indian agency other than the army is immaterial. What counts is that the Ufa understanding on using the DGMOs etc to maintain peace and security at the border did not kick-in despite India waiting a full day and apparently desperately trying to arrange contact by having the Indian NSA speak to the Pakistan High Commissioner.
The simplest method of resolving the drone controversy is for the two sides to meet, share the proof that the debris of the drone will reveal on its targets or movement and come to an understanding on future standard responses to similar incidents. Otherwise non-state actors can in future use easily procurable drones to create tension amongst the two armies.
If there is a moral to the Ufa episode it is this. The Modi government needs to understand that unbridled rhetoric, poor messaging and the failure to build public opinion in line with its mood swings can only land badly, like the unclaimed and splintered drone.
K.C. Singh is a former Indian ambassador