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India’s Non-Policy on Pakistan: U-Turn to Square One

Sushant Sareen is Consultant, Pakistan Project, at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • February 26, 2015

    If, apart from either a limited or an all-out war, dialogue is the only weapon in your arsenal to deal with an openly hostile country, then it stands to logic that it must be used sparingly, judiciously, creatively and in a way that it yields something tangible. India has, however, mastered the art of frittering away its sole weapon against Pakistan on a whim and a fancy of the powers that be. False premises built on an inadequate and incomplete understanding of Pakistan, future assurances by silver-tongued emissaries that are invariably dishonoured, and a bit of nudge and push by international powers, also play a role in India’s glaring inability to have a coherent and consistent policy on Pakistan. The ill-thought U-turn made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government on its principled position of not engaging Pakistan at the political level until that country addresses India’s concerns and respects its red-lines fits in this sordid pattern that has defined India’s non-policy on Pakistan. Quite clearly, the government has not worked out the serious diplomatic, political and security implications of this U-turn.

    The fig leaf of the new Foreign Secretary visiting Pakistan as part of a purported ‘SAARC Yatra’ is not being bought by anyone, least of all the Pakistanis who are crowing with delight over the unseemly climb-down by the Modi government. They were quite confident that it was a matter of a few weeks, or at best a few months, before the Indians come scurrying back to the dialogue table, partly as a result of Pakistan's aggressive diplomatic posturing and political rhetoric, partly because of the clamour that would steadily be built up inside India through the pro-Pakistan lobby, and partly as a result of the pressure that the Americans and their Western allies would exert on the Indian government. Past experience has taught the Pakistanis that India’s grand-standing against their country has a rather short shelf-life – a few months after the Parliament attack, Prime Minister Vajpayee extended his infamous ‘hand of friendship’; about six months after 26/11, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did a Sharm-el-Sheikh; and six months after Prime Minister Modi put his foot down on Pakistani hobnobbing with the Hurriyat, it is back to the talks table.

    There is nothing unusual about making a U-turn, whether in politics or in diplomacy. But the thumb rule is that the U-turn is made either to minimise damage or to maximise advantage. What is extraordinary about the Modi government’s U-turn is that it maximises losses and minimises advantages. Further, the factors that prompted the current government to make an about turn on Pakistan remains shrouded in mystery. From what is available in the public domain, the following are the possible factors that made the government embark on the desultory path of re-engaging Pakistan:

    • The red-lines laid down at the time when the Foreign Secretary’s visit in August 2014 was cancelled have been strongly registered and therefore there is no reason to not re-start the process of engagement;
    • America and its allies were leaning on India to engage Pakistan;
    • There was the whole issue of government formation in Jammu and Kashmir, with the BJP’s prospective ally laying down the condition of dialoguing with Pakistan;
    • There was no domestic electoral reason to continue with the hard-line on Pakistan since no state assembly election is due in the near future and this opened a window of opportunity;
    • The policy of non-engagement had run its course and has become subject to the law of diminishing returns;
    • Events in the region are moving fast and, by not engaging Pakistan, India would be left standing on the side-lines in Afghanistan;
    • And, the most outrageous one is that, Pakistan had changed after the Peshawar school massacre and is no longer going to flirt with any terrorist organisation, not even the India-centric ones. It would, however, sequence action against groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa after first cracking down on the Taliban – the classic post-dated cheque that will invariably bounce.

    Frankly, none of these reasons or causes that are being proffered as justification for the U-turn really does anything to forward India's national interests. Instead of firmly drawing red-lines, the government’s U-turn has effectively reduced them to the status of an appeal from a supplicant. From a point where Pakistan was told to decide on whether it wants to talk to the Indian government or to those seeking to break India to now when the government is saying that Pakistan can talk to the separatists but should avoid talking to them just before and after they talk to the Indian government, it is a rather steep fall. To avoid the embarrassment of seeing Pakistan fete the separatists on 23 March, the government is keen to hold talks in Islamabad well before so that Pakistan can do what it does and India can turn a blind eye to it.

    In any case, when the Government of India is itself ready to talk to separatists – that’s part of the Faustian bargain struck with the PDP in Jammu & Kashmir – then surely its opposition to Pakistan meeting the separatists does not hold much water. In other words, there are no red-lines any more. Worse, Srinagar will henceforth hold a veto on what goes for India’s Pakistan policy. After all, the BJP has conceded the PDP’s demand to hold a dialogue with Pakistan so that it can gain the privilege of becoming a junior, if also powerless, partner in the state government. The future implication of such political pusillanimity in India’s relationship with its other neighbours is, to say the least, extremely troublesome. Equally worrisome is the suggestion that the so-called hard-line taken by the government was not part of a new, but still incipient, policy framework but more a function of domestic political posturing with an eye on State assembly elections.

    Perhaps the Americans did lean on India to engage Pakistan and India gave in. Circumstantial evidence suggests so. A day before Modi twittered the news of the Foreign Secretary’s SAARC Yatra, President Obama had apparently told Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to expect a call from his Indian counterpart. So much for India's strategic autonomy! But more importantly, what was the pushback from the Indian side? Surely, the Americans could have been asked to make Pakistan deliver on some of our concerns if they were so keen on India once again engaging with Pakistan. It is another matter that with the Americans having failed to force compellence on Pakistan in their own cause, there is not very much that they could ask Pakistan to deliver in India’s cause. Be that as it may, at the very least, India could have let a respectable period of time elapse rather than responding with such alacrity to an American request or pressure. That would have salvaged some dignity.

    The Americans insist that their relationships with India and Pakistan ‘stand on their own’. If so, then what is in it for India to accede to American requests to engage Pakistan, unless of course India has now decided that America’s interests are synonymous with India’s interests. But that is clearly not the case because both sides agree that there are areas where their interests diverge, and Pakistan is one such area. The US believes that it will be able to change Pakistan’s strategic orientation by continuing to mollycoddle it. India, on the other hand, is convinced that this is a failed policy and only ends up encouraging, emboldening and incentivising Pakistan to continue on the path it has been treading so far.

    It is of course possible that the Americans and their allies got taken in by the Pakistani propaganda that India was opening the Eastern front at a time when Pakistan was moving against the Taliban. But this nonsense could have been easily shot down by India. For one, the ceasefire violations are initiated by Pakistan and India is only responding, albeit much more robustly than in the past. For another, there is no dramatic escalation from the Indian side and the response is only in the narrow area where Pakistan initiates the firing. Third, India has not opened up the entire Line of Control (LoC) or responded with higher calibre weapons to Pakistani provocations. If it was India’s intention to shift Pakistan’s focus away from its Western front, then surely India would have opened up the entire LoC in order to force Pakistan to redeploy troops to its Eastern front. This has clearly not happened. And while it is true that there is some action being taken by Pakistan against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), there is as yet nothing on the ground to even remotely suggest that Pakistan's policy on using terrorists as an instrument of state policy has changed or even that it is no longer discriminating between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists. At least insofar as India is concerned, there is absolutely no change in policy.

    It can be, and is being, argued that the Foreign Secretary’s visit does not amount to a structured dialogue and will at best be talks about talks. Even so, by agreeing to send the Foreign Secretary, India has committed a blunder, the price of which it will pay in the months ahead. A certain pressure has been built on Pakistan by calling off the talks in August 2014. Despite their usual bombast, Pakistanis were in a quandary as to how India would react to anything they do. This pressure has now been released by backing down on the issue of sending the Foreign Secretary. Come to think of it, if the Foreign Secretary had to be sent and India had to resile from the position it had taken last August, then it just did not make sense to cancel the talks back then. Even at that time, following the visit of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Delhi, the Pakistanis were on the defensive and were trying to figure out the new dispensation. Six months later and after the U-turn, the Pakistanis are convinced that the new dispensation is no different from its predecessors. As they see it, they just need to hold their nerve and sooner or later India will scurry back to the talks table. The point is that if this is what India will do, then why break off the talks in the first place?

    Talks with Pakistan come with a price tag, however. The past record suggests that every time India is engaged in a dialogue with Pakistan, there is a spike in incidents of terrorism; and every time India breaks off dialogue, terrorism incidents are few and far between. This is partly because talks serve as a buffer to any possible offensive action that India might contemplate in retaliation to a terror strike. It is so much easier to call off talks than to take offensive action. But when the talks are broken off, this buffer is not there and hence there is greater uncertainty about India's reaction. In other words, talks create space for Pakistan to export terrorism. It can of course be argued that there are enough spoilers inside Pakistan who would like to sabotage the talks. Even if for the sake of argument it is accepted that these are non-state actors – a clear fiction when it comes to groups like the LeT/JuD – this is of small comfort from an Indian perspective. Indians would rather not talk to Pakistanis and remain relatively secure from Pakistan's most potent export – terrorism – than talk to them and become victims of terror.

    Finally, there is the whole issue of a policy having run its course and becoming subject to the law of diminishing returns. The problem is that Indians tend to treat policy like instant coffee, something that must produce results within a relatively short time – not more than a quarter and certainly not more than six months – and when that does not happen, as it never will in this short period, there is clamour for a review. By never allowing a policy to run its course, India ends up going round and round in circles and making the same mistakes time and time again. In the process, it ends up reaffirming the stereotype that Pakistan has of India – a weak country without either the will or the staying power. This is the cardinal mistake being committed by the Modi government in sending the Foreign Secretary to Pakistan. As a result, the next time the government tries to play hard-ball, it will not be taken seriously, not by the Pakistanis, not by the international community and not even by Indians.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India