Indian governments come up against the force of middle-class opinion whenever there is a terrorist attack, such as the one in Gurdaspur this week. Public attitudes shaped by the news media nudge South Block to adopt hardened reactions, such as ordering reprisals and calling off dialogue.
The ministry of external affairs denied permission to officials accompanying the Pakistan high commissioner Abdul Basit for his visit to Punjab, but there are indications that the Centre will go ahead with the dialogue between the national security advisers of India and Pakistan in August.
That will be a good move. There are after all few benefits from suspending the dialogue as that only weakens constituencies that want relations to improve while confirming the biases of antagonistic forces, thus perpetuating a climate where the latter’s influence can flourish.
Instead, dialogue will help establish the terms of engagement between the two regimes whose principals have not really had a chance to establish a working equation. It offers opportunities to test assumptions on which current policy is based. And there is a packed agenda at hand to go through.
There are, first, the specifics of the Gurdaspur attack to dissect. Global positioning sets of the terrorists killed show that they entered India from Pakistan, raising questions about the attack. Was this the typical case of a militant non-State actor attempting to provoke confrontations between governments or was this about the Pakistani military scuttling contact between civilian governments?
Direct talks will allow India to judge the plausibility of the Pakistani narrative on the Gurdaspur attack and they will enable a discussion on Jammu and Kashmir, which has seen a spike in infiltration and violence. Islamabad will also be keen on presenting its claims about India’s alleged covert operations in Balochistan and the tribal areas.
India and Pakistan are far away from the stage towards the end of the UPA tenure when both sides were poised to consolidate trade and significantly extend people-to-people contact through a liberal visa regime. They now need to candidly discuss perceptions and the consequences of pursuing hardline policies that run alongside peaceable rhetoric.
Indian leaders have often promised a forceful response to terrorist attacks masterminded from Pakistan. But many will concede that there are no options on the table that do not involve the risks of escalation. When both sides have strong views on the other’s intent it is best that they address them directly.