Why Narendra Modi’s hardline Pakistan policy is deeply flawed

  • Sushil Aaron, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Aug 26, 2015 18:40 IST
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Ufa, Russia on Friday. (PTI Photo)

What makes for good television is not always sound policy. Tackling a state with recidivist elements demands a complex response that goes beyond mere posturing. All that the current approach does is generate toxic effects in Indian society

Islamabad learnt a bitter lesson in diplomacy during the dust-up over national security adviser talks with India —that once a side triumphs in the drafting of a text i.e., a joint statement, it can control the narrative about events.

There’s little doubt that from Pakistan’s vantage, the joint statement at Ufa was very badly drafted. It allowed India’s external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj to point to elements in the brief 207-word text which suggest that both sides considered terrorism as a central theme of the NSA talks. Pakistan’s NSA Sartaj Aziz could point to the part that said Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif ‘are prepared to discuss all outstanding issues’ – which has traditionally been a euphemism for Jammu and Kashmir – but it is fairly clear that the Ufa statement, taken together, was loaded in favour of recognizing terrorism as a central to the NSA talks agenda.

Be that as it may be, there is reason to believe this was a pyrrhic victory, where India squandered bigger objectives and incurred bigger costs by getting into an ugly squabble over Kashmiri separatists and the talks agenda. It prompts questions about the way New Delhi handled the situation, it puts paid to well-circulated theories about Modi’s foreign policy, evokes concerns about what this means for the future and raises doubts about the credibility of India’s narrative internationally.

To begin with, many have already asked as to why the agenda was not sorted out by New Delhi well in advance, if terrorism was to be the singular agenda. Swaraj suggested that Pakistan did not respond for 22 days to India’s call on NSA talks.

If that were true, were there no instruments at hand except feeding the media about India’s strategy of sending out a strong message on terror, of handing over a dossiers on militant camps that were reviving, on presenting proof that Dawood Ibrahim lives in Karachi, and about handing an expanding list of Indian fugitives living in Pakistan? Once that public diplomacy agenda of projecting Modi and NSA Ajit Doval as strongmen was on, was there any surprise that Islamabad would trot out a meeting with Kashmiri separatists to burnish its own moral credentials by insisting on the “core issue”? Islamabad was, in any case, still very resentful of the way Modi peremptorily called off foreign secretary talks last year – and so India’s posturing gave Islamabad the excuse to grandstand as well.

And even if Swaraj’s reading of the Ufa statement is warranted, the question to ask is whether India can really expect Pakistan to discuss terrorism and nothing else? Even if Pakistan is a deeply unstable state wracked with internal challenges, and has long pursued wrongheaded policies on India, it still does remain a nation-state that has its own canons of status, dignity and prestige. What is the incentive for Islamabad to participate in a dialogue where the agenda is structured to blame Pakistan, however warranted that blame is? Was not India’s anger about terrorism, the proof thereof and the threats to convey by Doval better relayed in a private setting rather than played out in public leaving both sides little option but to posture? In any case, if India was supposed to have a dual strategy of engaging the civilian government of Nawaz Sharif while isolating the military establishment, how do stringent conditions for talks with a representative of PM Sharif square with such plans?

All told, Modi’s posturing may have been good television that galvanised his base but it is completely out of step with the conventions of transaction between nation-states, however lopsided the balance of power is between two contending parties. If Indian policymakers argue that Pakistan does not deserve such courtesies as it exports terror, then why bother with Ufa in the first place?

Modi’s Pakistan policy seems to stem from the belief that keeping Islamabad on a leash through hardened rhetoric and enforcing a circumscribed dialogue is the way to go. The problem is that it achieves little beyond beefing up his domestic legitimacy. For one, it does not guarantee an end to terror attacks. Clearly India’s threats and a massive retaliation to cross-LoC firing last autumn has not deterred Pakistan from pushing terrorists into Gurdaspur or using artillery against civilians in the Poonch sector of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan has been steadily expanding its nuclear weapons programme and feels able to continue with sub-conventional warfare without too much of a cost. Modi’s coercive tactics have not altered that calculus significantly yet as the increased attacks in J&K suggest. In fact, the principal reason why Pakistan is keen on resuming dialogue with India, is not because it quakes at the neighbour’s military might, but because it sees engagement as a mechanism to contain escalation if a major terrorist strike does happen – a tool India has now deprived itself of.

Defenders of India’s policy may argue that Modi is raising Pakistan’s costs for proxy war through stringent conditionality and threatening ‘hot pursuit’ or implying covert action of its own. But we have just seen that Pakistan is unlikely to agree to pre-conditions since it has a competitive political landscape like any other country. The idea of hot pursuit of terrorists has also not been fully tested yet. Security experts say that aircrafts or commandos can execute an operation against militant camps in Pakistan but argue that returning to India may not be easy.

To restate, Modi’s hardline approach has not yet achieved any of the outcomes that are in India’s interests. All that this policy has yielded is a lot of anti-Pakistan sentiment, which has no policy utility beyond translating into a subliminal tirade against Indian Muslims on television on a regular basis. In effect, the policy is generating toxic effects in Indian society and on its public sphere rather achieving any strategic objective with Pakistan.

There are at least a couple of other policy implications to consider. The Modi government may well prefer not to deal with Pakistan but the
current approach will have seriously undermined networks that will be handy for managing the next India-Pakistan crisis. If a non-state actor like the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, decides to drive a wedge between the two countries — which is not inconceivable for figures with apocalyptic worldviews — it is not clear who Ajit Doval will lean on to prevent an escalation, especially when he is seen as a mastermind of the current strategy and a champion of hot pursuit of militants into Pakistan

In the aftermath of the next major terrorist strike, we will then have to rely on the Americans and the international community to defuse tensions, who will no doubt point out privately that India initiated this round of recriminations starting with the calling off of foreign secretary talks last August. In the meanwhile, if the Modi government is seen as egging on its hypernationalist media and embarrassing Pakistan’s civilian government which desired talks, then the international community’s indignation with the low-level terrorist violence that Pakistan sustains in India will wear thin.

This is not an argument for appeasement. Pakistan has, for sure, powerful actors who are implacably committed to destabilising India. There are, however, no military answers to the problem of terrorism. India would have tried them long ago if there were. India’s policy must instead flow from a recognition that Pakistan is a nation of 182 million with a complex set of interests and motivations, both at the elite and popular plane. India needs to have leverage all across Pakistani society to achieve its purposes, which for the moment includes rollback of terror and preventing escalation of conflict. The current policy is instead arraying all of Pakistan, including liberal elements of its civil society, against India, while the latter is also manufacturing animosity towards the neighbour. Effecting a social breach within and between both nations just to prove a point to a section of the Pakistan elite is neither sensible nor strategic. It is a dangerous place to be.

(The author tweets as @SushilAaron)


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