After nuclear concessions to America on accident liability and parallel safeguards, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is now opening talks with Pakistan, as sought by US President Barack Obama. The charade of sending the foreign secretary on a Saarc tour so as to create a cover for discussions in Islamabad cannot obscure the fact that Modi has reversed course and agreed to reopen talks with Pakistan unconditionally. His move, oddly, came right after hostile statements on India by Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his foreign policy adviser, Sartaj Aziz.
The sequence of events leading to the resumption of talks undergirds the Obama effect: Separately in January, US secretary of state John Kerry at the Vibrant Gujarat Summit and Obama in New Delhi exhort Modi to reopen talks with Pakistan. Then this month, Modi sends his petroleum minister to Pakistan for discussions on the planned US-backed gas pipeline from Turkmenistan. Soon thereafter, Obama telephones Sharif, who rails against India. Just hours later, Modi calls Sharif and sings peace, conveying his decision to send his foreign secretary to Islamabad.
At the chai per charcha with Modi, Obama focused largely on one issue: Pakistan. A defensive Modi, instead of questioning the US policy of propping up Pakistan with munificent aid and arms and thereby emboldening its hostility toward India, explained to Obama that he wanted to open talks with Pakistan after the Peshawar killings but was compelled to put off the decision due to continued Pakistani ceasefire violations and the attempt to free UN-designated terrorist Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi. Modi even pointed out that, as a friendly signal, he telephoned Sharif after the Peshawar attack and made Indian schools honour the victims with a two-minute silence.
Among Obama’s first actions after returning home from India were to unveil more than $1 billion in fresh aid to Pakistan in his budget proposals and to invite Chinese President Xi Jinping on a State visit, while his ambassador in India made clear that the US will work with India and Pakistan to promote “constructive dialogue” between them. Pakistan remains a top recipient of US aid. Unable to certify to Congress that Pakistan is preventing its territory from being used for terror attacks, Obama has used a national-security waiver to keep aid flowing to the world’s Terroristan. Such aid has encouraged Pakistan’s generals to nurture terrorist surrogates, rapidly expand their nuclear arsenal, and call the shots in domestic policy.
Consider this jarring paradox: Obama twice lectured a secular and diverse India in recent weeks on religious tolerance, only to get Modi to open talks with the Islamic republic where non-Sunni minorities are methodically being decimated. But what prompted Modi — who has projected a nimble, non-doctrinaire foreign policy with pragmatism as its trademark — to yield to pressure that he could have resisted?
Modi is opening talks at a time when the Sharif government is very weak. Pakistan’s power balance has titled decisively in favour of the other Sharif, who is the army chief, with the military savouring its triumphs in a series of bruising clashes with the government. The politically impotent Sharif is in no position to pursue rapprochement with India.
Yet Modi has yielded ground even on the issue that led to the cancellation of the last round of talks, with his government conveying to Pakistan that its high commissioner in New Delhi can meet Hurriyat separatists on any occasion other than when official talks are about to begin. Modi’s zigzag suggests that, despite his proactive diplomacy, he has yet to fully fix the broken Pakistan policy that he inherited from Manmohan Singh, whose 10-year tenure was marked by escalating cross-border terrorism even as Singh sought peace with Islamabad at any price.
The Pakistani military, as its intense ceasefire violations since last summer have shown, is intent on shining an international spotlight on the Kashmir issue, not on altering the India-Pakistan dynamic through improved bilateral relations. Talks with India under a tottering civilian government that is in no position to compromise on any issue suit the generals’ agenda. By reviving pairing with India, bilateral talks allow the country that risks failing to regain strategic relevance, including by highlighting the issue closely tied to its generals’ extraordinary power and privilege — Kashmir.
In this light, the renewed “peace process” can produce more process but no peace. Fresh talks are unlikely to alter the calculus of the Pakistani establishment, which is determined to checkmate India’s rise by whatever means — fair or foul — it deems advantageous. Terrorism is one favoured instrument.
In statecraft, talks are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. However, the Modi government is focusing just on the process of talks — knowing well that India can secure no end in a situation where Pakistan’s generals are wielding increasing power and the Pakistani foreign ministry is a weak actor. Opening talks without any prospect for meaningful progress is not sound diplomacy. It risks sending the wrong message and inviting greater aggression. Modi’s Pakistan gambit could embolden the sponsors of terror to step up cross-border attacks, as happened under the cover of previous “peace” talks. Army chief Dalbir Singh recently cautioned, “The terror infrastructure in Pakistan is still intact,” with new terror attacks in Jammu and Kashmir showing “Pakistan’s desperation.”
Modi’s dynamism and motivation in diplomacy in the past months has spurred hope of Indian foreign policy finally gaining a distinct geostrategic imprint and direction. His recent actions, however, highlight what has long blighted foreign policy — ad hoc and personality-driven actions that confound tactics with strategy. To advance long-term national interests, Modi must embrace institutionalised, integrated policymaking.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist, author and professor. The views expressed by the author are personal.