On December 15 last year Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the Combined Commanders Conference aboard INS Vikramaditya off the coast of Kochi. As he surveyed India’s relations with its neighbours he turned his attention to Pakistan. Modi remarked, “We are engaging Pakistan to try and turn the course of history, bring an end to terrorism, build peaceful relations, advance cooperation and promote stability and prosperity in our region”. Mid-December was a time of extreme optimism, hence, Modi’s evocative and ambitious rhetoric. Hence also, the abandonment of old cautions. Earlier that December, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, overlooking the Ufa joint statement, met with his Pakistani counterpart Lieutenant General (Retd.) Nasser Khan Janjua in Bangkok, with the two countries’ foreign secretaries also present. During that interaction, the Indian team apparently convinced itself that Pakistan’s leadership and its army were on the same page and desired good and cooperative relations with India. A few days later, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj visited Islamabad for the Heart of Asia Conference on Afghanistan. While there, she also met the Pakistani civilian leadership and both sides announced the beginning of a comprehensive new bilateral engagement. On Christmas day, ten days after his Kochi address, Modi dropped in to Pakistan to see his friend and counterpart Nawaz Sharif to wish him on his birthday on his way back to India from Kabul. A week later, Pakistani terrorists attacked the airbase in Pathankot, causing Modi acute embarrassment.
Obviously unable to abruptly shift gears from bonhomie to aggression, Modi went with seeking Pakistan’s cooperation to punish the Jaish-e-Mohammad cadres who were responsible for the attack. This cooperation proved to be a charade since the Pakistan army did not deliver despite India’s great concession in allowing a Pakistani Joint Investigation Team to visit India, including the Pathankot airbase for investigative purposes. On September 18, nine months after Pathankot, the army’s brigade headquarters at Uri were attacked by four terrorists, resulting in the deaths of 18 Indian soldiers. Already angry at Pakistan for fanning the flames on the Kashmir issue, a combative and determined Modi delivered an assuring message to India’s outraged citizens following the Uri attack. He said, “I assure the nation that those behind this despicable act will not go unpunished”. Ten days later, in an unprecedented move, he permitted the army to launch surgical strikes against terrorist launch pads in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) by crossing the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir.
The army carried out the attack with precision and competence. After it was over, the Indian DGMO contacted his Pakistani counterpart to inform him of the Indian action and, more importantly, make it clear that India had no desire to escalate the situation.
As it has happened in the past, the wheel of India-Pakistan relations has turned full circle in a matter of months. The hopes generated by the visit of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Lahore in February 1999 rapidly melted just three months later when India discovered that Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry units had occupied Indian posts in Kargil. Then, like this time, Pakistani generals demonstrated that they had no interest in normalising ties with India. This has been a constant in Pakistan’s approach to India, which each Indian prime minister seems to need to learn the hard way; each tries to pursue the holy grail of improving bilateral ties with Pakistan only to run into the obstacle of the Pakistani army. The real difficulty though lies in the very nature of the Pakistan state itself, which, at its core, sees itself as locked in perpetual hostility with India. This is the true ideology of Pakistan, of which the country’s army is a self-proclaimed guardian.
Some observers have pointed out that Indian army units have crossed the LoC to covertly strike at targets in PoK on some occasions in the past as well. That may be correct but there is a fundamental difference between covert and overt action. In the India-Pakistan context this distinction is important because overt action sends a clear signal to Pakistan that India is no longer willing to settle for refraining from military action to avoid prompting uncontrolled escalation in tensions. In the past, that is exactly the kind of paralysis that Pakistan has sought to impose on India, ever since Sahibzada Yaqub Khan warned then external affairs minister Inder Gujral against attacking Pakistan in its own territory since it possessed nuclear weapons. Since then Pakistan’s army and the country’s strategic class have constantly asserted that if India uses its superior conventional forces against Pakistan, the escalation may eventually result in nuclear war. Thus Pakistan has pursued terrorism with impunity, sheltered under a nuclear overhang. The Indian army’s surgical strikes erode Pakistan’s argument but do not completely shatter it.
In the past too, India has searched for a response to terrorism in Pakistan while keeping in mind that both countries possess nuclear weapons. Unable to find a way of ending terrorism, the Indian political class relegated the issue and turned to politically managing domestic opinion instead. The logic was that as the issue of terrorism did not impair India’s developmental progress, it did not constitute a strategic challenge. The fact that this stand portrayed India as a helpless and soft state on the world stage was simply ignored. The international community, uncaring for the loss of Indian lives, praised the country’s restraint. Naturally, if India was willing to absorb losses, the major powers worried about open conflict between India and Pakistan would seek the easy way out and not bother with pressuring Pakistan in any kind of effective way. There is little doubt that privately these powers will now press Pakistan to control the terrorists within its territory, even while they maintain a ‘balanced’ rhetoric publicly.
The justified surgical strike notwithstanding, the fact is that the only long term counter to low intensity conflict is through reciprocation of a similar nature. Thus while India must demonstrate that it will not be paralysed from using its armed forces to respond to terrorist acts because of the ‘nuclear overhang’, it must also be willing to shed its inhibitions in using the many levers a its disposal to harm the Pakistani state. This does not have to involve fomenting violence as there are a number of alternative options available. The steps Modi has taken since Pakistan’s strident backing of the Kashmir unrest shows that the government has re-thought the very premise of India’s approach to Pakistan. For much too long India has carried the fond hope that Pakistan will mend its ways.
India’s signalling on the issue of the Indus Waters Treaty is the most telling indication of this changed approach. To the Pakistani strategists who have long awaited a chance to gain a role in India’s watershed management, the idea that India can play with the water supply originating in its territory is alarming. Pakistan’s first response has been that this will constitute an “act of war“. Implicit in these comments is a desire to raise the spectre of nuclear warfare. It is unlikely that wiser counsel will prevail any time soon in Rawalpindi, but it will be a concern. By raising concerns over Balochistan internationally, although in the context of human rights, Modi has highlighted the cleavages in Pakistani society.
The possibility of a change in Pakistan’s most favoured nation status is an indication that India, which has always advocated the establishment of a web of cooperative ties, especially economic and commercial, is willing to abandon that path and adopt a sustained, combative approach. The decision in concert with Afghanistan and Bangladesh – both Muslim states and victims of Pakistani interventions – to skip the SAARC summit is a significant step to impose diplomatic costs on Pakistan. All this, taken along with the surgical strikes, shows that Modi is going where no Indian prime minister has gone before: he is responding to negativity with a dose of the same.
General Raheel Sharif’s initial reaction has been to deny that surgical strikes took place. This is to ensure that he wards off any immediate pressure on Pakistan to react. More than Nawaz, it is Raheel who will have to fashion a Pakistani response. Orchestrating a major terrorist strike against India will be a great temptation. The present state of India-Pakistan relations could lead to Raheel’s tenure as army chief being extended, which would be an interesting consequence of these developments.