It is often said that conducting foreign policy gets more challenging as we come closer to our own borders. This couldn’t be truer in India’s case and especially in relation to Pakistan. In today’s world where clear power blocs do not exist, where new threats emanate frequently, and where dominance of non-State actors adds to the complexities, we must deploy every resource to be able to safeguard our national interest and security and contain disruptive forces that inflict maximum damage on us.
These ‘super-states’ are secretive, well armed, powerful, and do not draw their strength from democratic structures. They have become self-serving machines intent on cornering power and financial resources, subverting institutions and forcing other nations to deal with them as legitimate representatives of popular will. Over the years, they have extracted powerful rents from the legitimate structures within Pakistan, cornered international attention and financial assistance to further their own agenda, and have propped up organisations to destabilise the neighbourhood. Their role in funding, training, and arming terrorists, and in irresponsible nuclear proliferation is well documented. This has led to two Pakistans — one which swears by a democratic polity based on representative and fair elections, and the other in which the armed forces have cornered patronage, a decisive role in diplomacy, and replacement of transparent checks and balances with supervision of elected governments by a military clique that is beyond accountability.
There is also a prominent third force on the rise in Pakistan — militant jihadism. Armed to fuel proxy warfare in India and Afghanistan, parts of it now routinely target civilians within Pakistan. The organisational principles of armed militancy have also been absorbed by generations of youth in Pakistan’s north-west, an area neglected by successive Pakistani governments and seeking the protection of tribal warlords, and thus bearing the brunt of anti-terrorist operations, further radicalising the local population.
Periodically, the reach and intent of maleficent non-State forces becomes manifest in incidents, like the one that recently happened in Pathankot. The bravehearts who laid down their lives in the operation need to be remembered for their valour. Yet, the breach has raised questions on the role larger strategic and political moves play in precipitating such incidents and the preparedness of our several lines of defence. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s impromptu visit to Pakistan seems to have been the immediate provocation for this attack. Every spectacle in dealing with the democratically elected government of Pakistan is likely to elicit a violent reaction from the underbelly of that violent state.
Going by the last 20 months, this government’s Pakistan policy is a stranger to subtlety, that necessary ingredient of statecraft. In 2014 the talks were called off in a spectacular fashion because Hurriyat leaders was invited for a talk at the Pakistan high commission, then few months later the NSA-level talks were conducted under a thick cloak of secrecy in Thailand. And post a Christmas/birthday/wedding visit on December 25, we had the Pathankot air base attacked. This resulted in the foreign secretary-level talks being ‘postponed’ with a promise to hold them in the ‘immediate future’ — many weeks later the limbo continues.
Instead of betting on high-profile optics, a broader engagement across multiple areas should have been pushed without fanfare. In an interconnected global economy, interdependence and low-profile diplomacy can dilute the logic religious extremists use to recruit youth.
The Pathankot attack should force introspection on the part of the government, and hopefully, will lead to a better alignment between the need to engage with Pakistan from a position of strength and avoid providing grist to the extremist mill. So much can be accomplished by enriching cultural and commercial contact through countless conversations and transactions between our peoples.
The second area of concern is about our defence preparedness. The armed forces need the support of the populations living along our borders. The rampant drug trade, smuggling, corruption and apathy in our border areas are only driving some people into the hands of anti-Indian forces. The states acts of commission and omission have allowed holes to be punched in our security apparatus, which terrorists exploit. The very legitimacy of sovereign power is creaking. This has created an adverse atmosphere for public participation in securing our borders.
Pathankot-type challenges need to be prevented. The solutions are not simple and need our diplomatic and counter-terrorism policy and operational strategy to be on the same page. When thrust into such situations, different forces should act in unison, with a clear demarcation of duties. A central plan to strengthen anti-terrorism operations of police organisations in border-states needs to be developed. A broad zone of community and other preventive policing techniques should make our borders more difficult to cross. Profiling physical vulnerabilities along the land border can highlight areas where more intense surveillance is justified. Lawful interception, electronic intelligence pooling and real time interpretation of communications intelligence are critical, but neglected.
Currently, India relies too much on high-level engagement with Pakistan. This in itself is a risky strategy that could derail at the slightest of provocations. Other structures of engagement should be initiated. Deep expertise is available outside the government for such multiple dialogues to flourish. This is also likely to yield unexpected synergies in tackling some of the thorny issues, such as Kashmir. Practical measures such as lowering barriers to trade, promoting a South Asian entrepreneurship ecosystem, or cooperating on multilateral platforms on shared objectives are likely to yield results in the medium term and create political traction for continued engagement in both countries.
It is not an easy task. Tackling several bits of a complex situation through a mix of strategies is more likely to add up someday to a critical mass that will transform the relationship than over-reliance on all-or-nothing grandstanding. Grand gestures, while good photo-ops, cannot secure the nation or reduce the level of mistrust and low engagement in our neighbourhood. It is the concerted effort of a hundred small steps by dozens of stakeholders. The question is whether the government is up to it.
Sachin Pilot is a former Union minister and president, Rajasthan Pradesh Congress Committee
The views expressed are personal