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A Hamletian dilemma

We must seriously consider what potential costs we could impose taking into account Pakistan’s many vulnerabilities. The same holds for coping with it’s destructive proclivities in Afghanistan, writes Shyam Saran.

india Updated: Sep 17, 2013 23:13 IST

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once again faces his Hamlet moment with Pakistan — to meet or not to meet his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. There is a campaign to dissuade him from doing so. There are also some muted voices in favour. This is symptomatic of much that is wrong with our approach to India-Pakistan relations, an inordinate preoccupation with the optical while getting deflected from the substance. Holding back on India-Pakistan summit meetings, or for that matter meetings at other levels, rarely yield results in terms of shaping Pakistani responses to our concerns, particularly when we have been inconsistent in pursuing such a policy.

There is now an established pattern in the conduct of our relations with Pakistan, which is ‘dialogue-disruption-dialogue’. Given this pattern, why should Pakistan take seriously our periodic threats to suspend dialogue? The sooner we abandon this bankrupt policy the better the chances of our focusing on the substantive issues in our relations with a neighbour who is not about to go away and is not likely to leave us in peace either. We should determine our approach to Pakistan on a careful assessment of the current regional and global geopolitical environment and its likely evolution over the coming months. There needs to be a careful assessment of the domestic political and economic dynamics now unfolding in Pakistan. These may provide us with a better sense of the challenges we will face not only in dealing with Pakistan but our entire Western neighbourhood.

The question then would be not whether the proposed meeting in New York should take place but rather what could be its substantive agenda aligned with our interests. We may come to a considered judgement that Pakistan is likely to persist with its hostile policies towards India and these may well escalate with the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in 2014. It may then suit us to maintain formal engagement even while we devise means to constrain Pakistan’s adversarial proclivities. Or we may come to the conclusion that the emergence of a democratically-elected civilian government in Pakistan and an altered perception in its elite that India is no longer an existential threat, does provide opportunities for nudging Pakistan in a direction that addresses our major security concerns.

What is our assessment of the evolving political dynamics in Pakistan? There is no doubt that Pakistan today has a democratically-elected civilian government which commands a parliamentary majority, enjoys legitimacy and acknowledges the major challenges the country confronts. It has committed itself to better relations with India and appears keen to promote closer economic and trade relations. We need to recognise and welcome these changes. However, there is little to indicate that there is a change in the country’s reliance on cross-border terrorism as a tool of State policy. This is linked to the continued tolerance, indeed encouragement, of jihadi and fundamentalist groups within the country. Unless we perceive a visible change in this regard, a healthy scepticism over prospects for improved India-Pakistan relations would be in order.

Even if India-Pakistan relations were to improve in the coming months, the impending and likely disruptive change in Afghanistan, post 2014 may cause a serious setback. The only way such a setback could be avoided would be through an India-Pakistan dialogue on Afghanistan, focusing on what the two countries could do together to ensure political stability and economic prosperity in that country rather than engage in competitive hostilities. So far there is no evidence that Pakistan’s new leadership is ready to give up its claim of a virtual veto over Afghanistan’s political dispensation. There is more evidence to suggest that Pakistan looks at post-2014 Afghanistan as an opportunity to restore its pre-eminent status in that country using its Taliban assets. In this case, India may have no alternative but to devise means both on its own and in tandem with other regional actors, to frustrate Pakistani designs. If that fails, then confronting and containing a fundamentalist and terror generating machine in Kabul, sponsored by Pakistan, will become inevitable. We need to be clear where our red lines lie and others should know as well. This will help avoid much angst in the future.

If it is our assessment that Pakistan, even under its democratic civilian government is unable or unwilling to deal with the issue of cross-border terrorism and its jihadi perpetrators roaming free in the country, then it is unlikely that this matter will be resolved at this or any other summit meeting. In fact, thanks to the US perception of Pakistan’s indispensable role in facilitating an honourable exit for its forces from Afghanistan, our neighbour seems to believe that international intolerance of cross-border terrorism against India has diminished and could be exploited to revive the Kashmir issue. Nawaz Sharif’s reference to Kashmir as Pakistan’s “jugular vein” has resurfaced after a long hiatus. Pakistan will be dissuaded from pursuing such a policy only if it is shown to impose more costs than deliver benefits. We must seriously consider what potential costs we could impose taking into account Pakistan’s many vulnerabilities. The same holds for coping with Pakistan’s destructive proclivities in Afghanistan.

India must avoid getting caught between a rock and a hard place, that is to choose between appeasement and war when dealing with Pakistan. In fact there is a lot in between in terms of positive and negative levers available to influence the strategic calculus in Islamabad. Knowing what these are and a willingness to use them are what would make the summit meaningful from India’s point of view. And this is what our discourse should be about.

Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary
The views expressed by the author are personal