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Saturday, Sep 21, 2019

Pulwama reinforces end to terror-talk policy of Centre

Soon after it was elected, the Narendra Modi government concluded that the India-Pakistan relationship had fallen into an unthinking cycle of talks, followed by terror, followed by more talks, ad nauseam.

india Updated: Mar 02, 2019 23:06 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Image for representation.
Image for representation.(AP file photo)

Soon after it was elected, the Narendra Modi government concluded that the India-Pakistan relationship had fallen into an unthinking cycle of talks, followed by terror, followed by more talks, ad nauseam. Both governments had come to accept this pattern, but India was the one getting a bloody nose.

The outgoing government, when asked about how to handle Pakistan’s terror actions, simply told the Modi team, “Just keep talking to them.” Modi’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, privately described this terror-talks cycle as the “left hand washing the right hand, while the right hand is washing the left hand”.

This passivity had its origins in different circumstances. In the past, India’s military and economic strength was only marginally greater than Pakistan’s. The international community was as likely to blame New Delhi for mismanaging Kashmir as it was to blame Islamabad for sponsoring terror. The turmoil of Kashmiri politics was a third element.

The Modi government decided it was time to break the cycle. It adopted a more muscular approach. Pakistan would have to learn that a major terrorist strike would be met with a strong Indian retaliation. Islamabad should no longer be able to predict the Indian response, other than the fact that it would be punitive.

In addition, dialogue would no longer be pursued just for the sake of dialogue. The old framework had to be broken. But Modi’s national security team accepted it was an educational process that would have to unfold over a number of years — and the learning would apply to both Pakistanis and Indians.

Any residual doubts about this policy ended after the terror attack on the Pathankot airbase in January 2016.

Pakistan’s re-education began that autumn. The 2016 Uri attack and the reprisal that followed were effectively Lesson One. India had carried out reprisals before, but it had never gone public with them. It was like a military pop quiz: Islamabad could either admit the attacks and go toe-to-toe with India, or it could deny them and de facto admit it didn’t want a fight. It chose the latter.

Uri showed the Line of Control would no longer be a barrier to Indian action. It also showed global opinion had changed. The West and Russia criticised Pakistan, not India. Even “fair weather friend” China was very correct in its response.

Pulwama and its aftermath now constitute Lesson Two. Bodybag counting is irrelevant to the strategic equation. The real success of the past week of tension is that India’s “calculus of deterrence” with Pakistan is now more deeply ingrained in the bilateral relationship.

One, India not only breached the Line of Control but it carried out a heavy bombardment on Pakistani land that is not even disputed.

Until now, New Delhi had always attacked targets in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to make the thin legal case it was attacking “Indian territory” and, therefore, not in violation of international law. With the Balakot strike, India dispensed with this fig leaf. The message to Pakistan and the wider world: if India is hit, it will strike wherever it wishes. This has similarities to Pe’ulot Ha Tagmul, roughly “acts of retribution,” a policy adopted by Israel from the 1950s.

Two, Pakistan found itself even more isolated internationally. Traditionally, Islamabad has counted on the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and China for diplomatic cover. Post Pulwama, only China has been supportive and, publicly, largely neutral. Islamabad can take some consolation in Russia’s echoing of China’s position, at least behind closed doors.

Changing the behaviour of nations is a long process. And Modi has sought as much to change Indian mindsets as Pakistani ones. It is unlikely Uri and Pulwama will be enough. Rawalpindi will wonder if the policy will survive a weaker Indian government. There are also other elements New Delhi must address. For example, the deterioration in the political climate in Kashmir since 2016. And, at some distant point, India will need to open the door to dialogue again. For now, a “new normal” has been established both at home and next door that could define relations for years to come.

First Published: Mar 02, 2019 23:06 IST