In the third of a five-part interview centred around his new book on Indian foreign policy, Choices, the former national security adviser evaluates India’s Pakistan policy.
Siddharth Varadarajan: Could Pakistan and India ever emulate the China-India relationship and say, we will not allow territorial disputes to come in the way of building other ties?
Shivshankar Menon: In fact, in December 1996, Jiang Zemin, the president of China stood up in the Pakistani National Assembly and told them, you should do with India what we do with India, which is discuss your differences but don’t let it prevent a normal relationship – trade, travel, all the normal stuff that neighbours do. Of course, that’s not the advice the Pakistanis have ever taken. It’s what we would prefer and we’ve always said this to the Pakistanis. We are ready to discuss all issues between us but let’s at least develop the rest of the relationship. Pakistan, however, has chosen to do it the other way round, to say that until that major issue – and for them the core issue is Kashmir, not terrorism as it is for us – we are not going to get into this. In some ways, Pakistan’s declining agency and her own condition actually make it harder for [her] to make those choices. So I think it’s less likely today that Pakistan takes the advice.
The other thing that’s happened is China no longer gives that advice. If you look at the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor), the $46 billion commitment that Xi Jinping actually made to Pakistan – this is a long term bet on Indian territories staying under Pakistani control in Kashmir, on Gwadar as a military, naval base at the head of the Indian Ocean, projecting power – most of that only makes sense actually in terms of strategy or geopolitics. It doesn’t make economic sense. An oil pipeline, I think Global Times last week was saying, oil delivered through the CPEC pipeline would cost 16.6 times as much as oil delivered by sea. So if there’s no real economic justification for it then, India’s reaction to that is different. So you are in a different situation today, where I think you need, you have issues that you should be actually sorting out and working out a new framework or modus vivendi for the relationship [with China].
SV: Despite the stated objective of some Indian leaders – that we want to see Pakistan isolated on the question of terrorism but even more broadly than before – today Pakistan seems to have a few more options than it did in the past. I mean, China-Pakistan, China has doubled down on its partnership, the Russians have come into the picture, whatever Pakistan’s activities in Afghanistan may be, they remain a crucial player. What’s gone wrong [for India]?
Menon: Pakistan has an amazing ability to use terrorism either as a weapon with India, with Afghanistan or as a USP – offering to manage it, deal with it, control it – to China, to Russia, to the US, and to play both sides of the street and charge basically strategic rent. So when the situation evolves in a way that it’s possible for Pakistan to charge, raise the rent, she does so and that seems to have happened again. [This situation] is created by US-China strategic contention which has been growing despite their economic inter-dependence, it’s created by the Middle East being divided – again Pakistan gets room to play – and by the general desire to actually try and stabilise Afghanistan and to prevent extremism, terrorism being exported from Pakistan, Afghanistan into say Russia or into China through the Uyghurs into Xinjiang, and so on. So you’re right, actually Pakistan’s ability to do this – to charge strategic rent – continues, and whether it’s a goal of Indian policy to isolate Pakistan and so on, I’m not sure. I think our real goal should be to contain terrorism, extremism.
SV: No, I’m just repeating what I’ve heard ministers and officials say.
Menon: Well I don’t know. I can’t speak for them.
SV: Let me turn the equation around slightly. If we say that it’s important for India and Pakistan to grow their relationship and set aside or leave the resolution of disputes for when the time arrives, Pakistan, for the longest period never listened to that logic and said that, ‘No, you solve Kashmir first. Until then there’s no prospect of a normal relationship’. Today, the equation has turned somewhat – often it’s India that says we cannot talk, there can’t be talks, we cannot make progress on other issues until you resolve what is for us the core issue, which is terrorism. So are we not that guilty of playing the same sort of game? And at the end of the day, the prospect for growing a relationship on other fronts, of which there are ample opportunities, remains neglected because of various domestic political reasons.
Menon: I say in the book that in my opinion and it’s only my opinion, whether you have talks or not is not going to stop terrorism. If that’s your goal, you need to address the problem – which is terrorism, rather than whether you have talks or not. Secondly you’re dealing with…
SV: In other words, you’re saying using ‘I won’t talk’ as a lever to combat terror is not –
Menon: I don’t think it works. Just as people who say we have nuclear weapons, terrorism should stop. I don’t think so. This is not related. Secondly you’re dealing with many Pakistans. Your terrorism problem is with a certain part of the Pakistani establishment – the Pakistan army, the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), the Jihadi tanzeems, the religious political parties which enable them and support them and so on. But it’s not with the average Pakistani citizen, ordinary civil society, with Pakistani businessmen or with most civilian politicians in Pakistan. Because you’re dealing with many Pakistans, you have to run many separate policies. Saying kutti – not talking to, you know, those parts of Pakistan who actually want better relations with you – I don’t see how that helps. You’re just empowering the elements who actually mean you harm and are sponsoring terrorism. So I don’t link these two. I think this linkage in our mind which we have developed over time, I think it’s no longer true because this is not normal statecraft. You’re not dealing with one sovereign who controls everything, who has a monopoly of violence within his territory as the classical political science definition used to say. That’s not what you’re dealing with at all over here.
SV: So in a sense then, could one argue that dealing with the problem of terrorism at the first level requires a certain internal hardening, requires sorting out internal weaknesses, making sure your bases can’t be infiltrated by a small group of terrorists, your borders are protected, you have proper real-time intelligence on which you are prepared and able to act – and that, somehow, our failure on those fronts remains unaddressed. And when ‘not talking’ becomes the main goal, in a way it allows the establishment to side step those difficult, challenging tasks that are internal?
Menon: First I’d question that we failed on those fronts because if you look at the actual record – infiltration, deaths from terrorism, security forces, civilians and so on – [this] declines steadily from roughly 2001 onwards until about 2014. All those indicators went down. After Mumbai…
SV: But that is a product of complex factors, right? I mean, internal security management plus diplomacy right? [India and Pakistan] were talking at that time.
Menon: I’m not saying that. It’s also a combination of other things we did, especially after Mumbai. If you look at the three major attacks which happened after Mumbai between 2009 to 2014, none of them could actually be directly traced back to Pakistan. There might have been a Pakistani hand behind it and so on, but none of them could be [traced], whether it’s German Bakery, whether it’s Zaveri Bazaar, Mumbai, you know all the big… And there was a clear diminution in all these factors we’re talking about. Now you might say this is not only our own hardening, it’s not also better intelligence coordination, it’s not only responses, it’s not just that. It’s also the circumstances in which we were operating. There’s a whole set of factors – I agree with you. There was a global war on terror on, there were various other things happening during that period – Osama Bin Laden was taken out etc. – but that is what policy’s about, bringing to bear whatever you can to try and achieve an outcome, and that outcome is actually to counter terrorism. So whether you talk or not, as you said, that’s just a side argument. That’s a political argument to attack your opponents – saying why are you talking – but every government of India, no matter from which party, once it comes to power and is responsible, I think understands this and actually does try and talk with those elements which it can talk to and at the same time tries and deals with the terrorism that’s coming across the line.
SV: Has the addition of so-called surgical strikes, or publicly announced surgical strikes, been welcome? Is it a good addition to the armoury of Indian options?
Menon: Surgical strikes are not a new addition –
SV: No, I’m saying the public articulation of them –
Menon: And they shouldn’t be called surgical strikes. What we did was really a –
SV: I’m using the official phrase.
Menon: … a pre-emptive action against terrorist launch pads, in self-defence – I think [this] is really what they should be described as – along the Line of control. Going public is a matter of choice. It’s the government’s choice. So far, no government has chosen to do so, nor did they use it for domestic political purposes in the past. But you know, if the government decides that’s what they want to do, they must have made a calculation, but it also makes control of the escalation ladder much harder. Once you’ve aroused public expectations at home and you’ve gone public, then frankly, the other side also has a public opinion to deal with, and will therefore have to show that it’s not cowed down by this, and you have this risk of an escalating series – and I think to some extent that’s what you’ve seen over the…
SV: Does the fact that the Pakistanis chose to deny this matter?
Menon: First they denied, then they reacted to something they denied, and you know this is totally, actually if you look at it, it doesn’t make sense, what they’ve done.
SV: But the reaction is on the LoC (Line of Control) – firing. as opposed to –
Menon: We are now back to a situation before the ceasefire. I mean the ceasefire is as good as broken down and I think the real victims unfortunately are the civilians along the line who can’t live their normal life, can’t till their fields and as you can see the civilian casualties also are quite high. You know, this kind of action on the line actually, it has its utility. It’s useful to restore balance, to restore deterrence along the line, to restore dominance, to actually quieten things. Going public makes all that more difficult. I think that’s the problem.
SV: You were part of a government which moved the ball on the Kashmir negotiations with Pakistan the furthest it has ever been moved. The Manmohan-Musharraf formula as it has come to be called, to most Kashmir watchers, seems like a rational, sensible end-goal. Today it seems like a distant dream. Not only in Pakistan or on the ground but in this country too. Do you think a situation will arise when the two countries eventually will be able to move towards that, recreating that formula in some way?
Menon: Well you’re right. I don’t think there’s a better formula and I think ultimately people will probably have to come back to it–
SV: It’s like the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine with Jerusalem shared by both. Everybody knows that’s what you need but–
Menon: When domestic politics in both countries, but primarily in Pakistan – because there it’s structural and it’s institutional as well, which it isn’t in India – when that will permit and you need simultaneously on both sides, when that will permit actually adopting that formula, by any other name – I’m sure it’ll no longer be called the Manmohan-Musharraf formula, it’ll probably be named after whoever’s in power at that time. But whatever it is – when that will happen is very hard to say. I can’t predict that. I find it harder and harder to believe that the institutional interest which actually sponsors cross-border terrorism out of Pakistan, and the interest in a managed level of hostility which is strong, that those will actually wither away quickly.
SV: Absent some dramatic internal restructuring in Pakistan.
Menon: Unless something really dramatic happens and that of course – black swans – you can’t predict, by definition.
SV: You’ve spoken about there being many different kinds of Pakistans. Do you think there are things that India could do via engagement that might strengthen those Pakistans that favour a normal relationship with India? Or do you think this is an entirely internal issue that the Pakistanis have to sort out?
Menon: I think it is primarily for the Pakistanis to sort out. I think we should leave the possibilities open, the door should be open, but that doesn’t mean that I think that we need to go in and try and create it. I don’t think that’s a very good idea and, you know, Indian involvement in Pakistani politics is the kiss of death.
Next: Menon on India-Sri Lanka relations at the closing stages of the war against the LTTE