With the terrorist attack at Pathankot, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is getting a glimpse of what his predecessor Manmohan Singh went through when devising his Pakistan policy. Singh was committed to progress in ties and steered backchannel diplomacy with Islamabad on Kashmir between 2004-07 but had to weather several disruptive events, including the Mumbai train bombings in July 2006, attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008 and later the 26/11 carnage at Mumbai. Modi’s outreach to his counterpart Nawaz Sharif last month including through a visit to Lahore has elicited a similar blowback from jihadi forces with Saturday’s attack.
Modi is realising that there are no easy pathways on Pakistan policy. He tried taking a hard line for most of last year, talking tough on terror and cross-LoC firing and imposing conditions on the form and substance of bilateral dialogue but had to backtrack as that approach was hurting his international image while lurching the domestic political debate on Pakistan so far to the Right that it was constraining his own options.
There will be calls for Modi to rethink his outreach to Islamabad after Pathankot. But he should persist with engagement since not doing so is to play into the hands of non-State actors and elements in the Pakistan establishment who want to sustain the wedge between India and Pakistan, sow fresh discord Modi and Sharif who clearly share perspectives on the direction of the relationship, and refresh doubts in New Delhi about the intent of the Pakistani military. These actors will also be hoping for an overreaction from India to shape the debate within Pakistan.
The NDA must be convinced that avoiding dialogue does not make India more secure; it will only deprive New Delhi of contacts and leverage within the Pakistani system to communicate threats and offer incentives. A renewed diplomatic freeze also drives both societies apart, which is another objective of the jihadis. The key challenge for Modi’s government is to be able to have unflinching discussions with Islamabad on terrorism, secure a measure of cooperation and intelligence via the Sharif government and the NSA channel, while staying focused on broader goals like bilateral and regional economic cooperation.
Indian public opinion is likely to be restive on the issue in the weeks ahead. Part of Modi’s job is to unravel the rationale behind his approach – to be able to communicate clearly to the public, beyond dramatic optics, that achieving regional integration also depends on him being invested in changing Pakistan, however tortuous it may seem – and that it entails seizing the chances Nawaz Sharif offers and absorbing the risks of such a process.