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Heat up the Cold Start

It's not easy, but India and Pakistan must grasp the nettle, writes Varghese K George.

india Updated: Nov 04, 2011 17:02 IST
Varghese K George
Varghese K George
Hindustan Times

India allegedly has a military doctrine called 'Cold Start', which means that in the event of any future conflict with Pakistan, New Delhi will avoid a full-blown war and go for a low-intensity offensive. This term also appropriately describes the status of the Indo-Pak dialogue after the Mumbai terror attack because it failed to warm up after a cold start. In such a scenario, Pakistan's decision to confer the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status on India adds some warmth to the relations.

While trade and liberal visa regimes improve bilateral relations, overcoming coagulated distrust between the two will take more than just these efforts. If trade was responsible for friendship then China would be friends with Japan and the US. But that's not the case. What then can be the gamechangers in Indo-Pak relations?

The Chao Phraya Dialogue, a track-two initiative named after the river that passes through Bangkok, recently brought nearly three dozen representatives (diplomats, academicians, journalists) from the two countries to discuss this issue and it threw up some interesting ideas.

Perceptions play an important role in international relations, but in Indo-Pak relations, perceptions play an overwhelming part. Both countries have an understanding of the other's understanding of it — and behave accordingly. Its distance from the reality can be twice over — because it's always a perception about a perception. How this self-aggravating cycle can be broken is a conceptual challenge in Indo-Pak relations.

The formation of Pakistan (based on the two-nation theory) makes hostility with India the core of its existence, according to an influential view in India. A dominant Pakistani view presents the same set of historical facts to argue that India will never tolerate the existence of Pakistan. Assuming that both are right from their respective perspectives, one still has to think of ways to overcome it.

After the collapse of the Sharm el-Sheikh initiative and the chill that followed, India resumed talks primarily because not talking to Pakistan had diminishing returns. Moreover, India was optimistic that Pakistan would indeed take some action against the conspirators of the attack. The inability — or unwillingness — of Pakistan to deliver on this has weakened the peace process that India now carries on with ritualistic impassiveness.

The frantic efforts to stabilise Afghanistan have inserted yet another variable in the complex regional matrix. Pakistan expects a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, after the US exit. It sees India's interventions in Afghanistan more as encircling and weakening Pakistan rather than stabilising the troubled zone. For the record, Kashmir remains Pakistan's first item vis-à-vis India, but the suspicions are about Afghanistan. India's position on Kashmir is a known, while that in Afghanistan is an unknown known. Given Pakistan's fears about its further disintegration that it suspects India supports and uncertainties about Afghanistan, the western border is closer to Pakistan's strategic calculations. Hence, Pakistan holds the Haqqani Network that is hostile to India, close.

Given the preeminence that terror and Afghanistan have on Indo-Pak relations, the gamechangers too must evolve around these.

A discernible Pakistani action against terrorists who target India from its soil will do wonders. Haggling over the technical issues in the cases related to the Mumbai attack will not take it forward; it must demonstrate an attitude. Acting on terror can turn around bilateral relations as the recent radical shift in India-Bangladesh ties shows. The trust created by Bangladeshi action against groups that targeted India catapulted relations to a different level.

On the other hand, India's explanations about its intent in Afghanistan are not sufficient to reassure Pakistan. While India does understand — and perhaps overemphasises — Pakistan's existentialist fears, isn't there anything it can do to mitigate it? Engaging Pakistan on India's activities in Afghanistan can be a beginning. Two suggestions emerged specifically on this issue: first, India and Pakistan must hold a meeting specifically on Afghanistan; and second, India must help to bring the Northern Alliance and Pakistan closer so that the latter is assured of the possibility of working with them also in the future.

Getting beyond the Cold Start will take courage on India's part and a realisation in Pakistan that the war on terror is also its problem — and not India's and the US's alone.

First Published: Nov 03, 2011 23:08 IST