One of the victims of the military exchanges between India and Pakistan along the Line of Control is the civilian political leadership of Islamabad: Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He had developed a certain cordiality with his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, over the past two years. By all accounts, Mr Modi saw in him a Pakistani leader who had a sensible and pragmatic view of how the two countries should handle their many differences. But Mr Sharif had no authority to pursue this moderate view of India. This is the monopoly of the generals in Rawalpindi and their hostility to India is implacable. When he authorised the military strikes against terrorist camps in Pakistani-occupied Kashmir, Mr Modi has concluded that investing in Mr Sharif is a political deadend.
Various Indian prime ministers have faced a similar dilemma over the past decades. Many have taken heart from Pakistan’s democratically-elected civilian leadership and sought, in some small way or another, to promote their authority over the men in khaki. Prime ministers Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee pursued this path. Mr Vajpayee even seeking an accommodation with Pervez Musharraf, a military man who sought to rule as a civilian. At the heart of their view was a belief India should continue to talk with whoever was in power in Pakistan, irrespective of the terrorist attacks and other forms of violence that militants inflicted on India. These attacks were secondary to a larger vision of seeking to engage the civil societies of the two countries and help Pakistan to move away from the path of religious fundamentalism and State-sponsored violence that it had taken since the dictatorial rule of Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq. India’s underlying policy was to save Pakistan from itself. This was not an easy policy to sustain. Terrorist attacks of the scale of Mumbai 26/11 or small border wars of the Kargil variety would wreak havoc with public support in India for any engagement with Pakistan and strengthen a belief that the only way to handle India’s rogue neighbour was through the barrel of a howitzer. The Pakistani policies of Mr Vajpayee and Mr Singh both struggled as a consequence. That Rawalpindi often deliberately sabotaged ongoing peace initiatives did little to assuage the public mood.
Mr Modi seems to have pursued a version of this enlightened policy for two years, cultivating ties with Mr Sharif even though a diplomatic harvest seemed unlikely. But the prime minister has now concluded that he can no longer afford this policy. The sacrifice of the Saarc summit in Islamabad, humiliating Mr Sharif, is a case in point. In this, he is following the view of PV Narasimha Rao who concluded he was better off reducing his Pakistan contacts to just photo ops. The flip side of this attitude, however, is to give up on civil society engagement and focus more on isolating Pakistan internationally and building the political and military equivalent of a wall between the two neighbours. This has obvious benefits in the short-run but, ultimately, reflects a view that Pakistan is a problem that should be managed rather than solved.