Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a surprise attack on Pakistan during his visit to Jammu and Kashmir on Tuesday. Speaking to army and air force personnel at Leh, the PM termed Pakistan’s attitude to India as “unfortunate” and said the neighbour “has lost the strength to fight a conventional war, but continues to engage in the proxy war of terrorism”. Mr Modi’s comments are understandable, up to a point, as he was speaking to an armed forces audience soon after militants attacked a Border Security Force (BSF) convoy at Pampore on Monday, injuring eight paramilitary personnel. His remarks also come against the backdrop of recent firing incidents across the Line of Control, where both sides have traded accusations. Ceasefire violations are a serious matter as they are often used to provide covering fire for infiltrating militants. Mr Modi’s remarks may well be useful if they are meant to forestall the next major terrorist attack.
But there are legitimate questions about whether such a direct attack on Pakistan by the prime minister was necessary at this stage. Mr Modi surprised everyone with the gesture to invite his counterpart Nawaz Sharif for his swearing-in and thereby generated hope that a strong government in New Delhi will be able to transact more quickly and effectively with Pakistan. His new remarks are liable to sow fresh doubts in Islamabad about India’s Pakistan policy and will cast a shadow on foreign secretary-level talks, due in Islamabad on August 25. Islamabad has, not surprisingly, criticised the statement and many will wonder if we are back to the familiar ‘one step forward, two steps backward’ India-Pakistan routine seen many times over the years.
One hopes that is not the case. India-Pakistan relations are too important to be left hostage to public recriminations. There is much that can go wrong. India-Pakistan mistrust on Afghanistan and misperceptions about future terrorist attacks can lead to major crises. Only intensive, regular and hard-nosed engagement can mitigate tensions. There is, in any case, a lot that India and Pakistan can strive for even while disagreeing on many issues. More land-based trade will benefit the cash-strapped Indian state of Punjab. Indian power and gas exports, which are being discussed, can help Pakistan cope with severe energy shortages. The popularity of Pakistani television serials in India prompts hopes of greater exposure to each other’s societies and, maybe, even resumption of cricketing ties. There is truly a lot at stake.