Eye on External Affairs—Modi stuck in the mud on Pakistan

Just as India did not trust Musharraf, Pakistan is unlikely to repose faith in Modi as long as he remains a prisoner of his core constituency and India pursues a game of one-upmanship in Afghanistan

Photo by Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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Ashis Ray

Never since independence has New Delhi’s interface with its troublesome western neighbour been so directionless and inconsistent. Indeed, it has reached a cul de sac because of a lack of understanding of realities and ignoring informed advice.

The likes of Narendra Modi suffer from a terrible complex about the Mughals having ruled over Hindus for centuries. “Akhand Bharat”—which they dreamed of after British withdrawal from India—would, they felt, have given them an opportunity to avenge the domination. Partition shattered that ambition.

Consequently, BJP’s attitude towards Pakistan is one of hostility and to subjugate, failing to appreciate a nuclear-armed nation will not capitulate under force or rhetoric. Therefore, India’s approach can only be one of managing the situation until a window opens.

Admittedly, in 1971 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, whose birth centenary it is this year, did succeed in humbling Pakistan and severing its eastern wing. But she let it off the hook by releasing nearly 1,00,000 Pakistani prisoners of war without compelling Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to sign on the dotted line on Kashmir. A man who had threatened a “1,000-year war” with India should never have been trusted.

Photo by Vidya Subramanian/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Vidya Subramanian/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
File photo of a tribute by sand artists to Pathankot martyrs, at Juhu, Mumbai. Seven security personnel were killed in the attack on the Pathankot Indian Air Force Station by six terrorists who, according to officials, crossed over from Pakistan

Keeping the pot boiling

There was a prospect of progress on the Kashmir front on the basis of a General Pervez Musharraf formula. But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could ultimately not count on the culprit of Kargil.

Musharraf’s offer, modified with Indian inputs, remains an option to reduce tension. But Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s distaste for the man who unseated him in 1999 makes him resistant to an idea mooted by the General.

The Pakistan army keeps the pot boiling in Kashmir not only to harass India but to retain its domestic indispensability, for K word unites an otherwise divided Pakistan.

BJP’s attitude towards Pakistan is one of hostility and to subjugate, failing to appreciate a nuclear-armed nation will not capitulate under force or rhetoric. Therefore, India’s approach can only be one of managing the situation until a window opens.

Further, the Pakistani establishment has never forgiven India for 1971. So, its involvement in Kashmir is as much to settle scores as anything else.

Does that mean Pakistan is unmanageable? The Singh government succeeded in keeping a lid on it, thereby keeping the Line of Control in Kashmir relatively tranquil. 26/11 was, of course, a major security lapse.

The incidents of attacks on military establishment like Pathankot, Uri and Nagrota under Modi’s watch are, however, far more serious. Besides, they signify that such counter punches have punctured the so-called muscular policy.


Groping in the dark

The invitation to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to attend the durbar of Modi’s swearing-in was a chest-thumping move, which transpired to be unproductive. The Pakistani armed forces interpreted it as Modi proclaiming South Asia is an India-centric region.

It would be wonderful, if like European leaders, Indian officials undertook day trips to Pakistan at the drop of a hat. But Modi’s stopover in Lahore emitted a mixed message. Only a couple of hours earlier, he had badmouthed Pakistan in Kabul. To then hug Nawaz Sharif as if he was a long-lost friend was utterly theatrical.

The fact is, Modi has been groping in the dark on Pakistan. Those in praise of him say he’s a risk-taker. No responsible leader takes chances at his country’s expense. The truth is, instead of rising above the Pakistani mullah and military’s tirade, he cannot help lowering India to the same depth.

To insist on talks on terrorism alone may sound tough; but it is unachievable as long as there’s a soft under-belly in Kashmir. It has in any case failed to induce Pakistan back to the dialogue table.

The invitation to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to attend the durbar of Modi’s swearing-in was a chest-thumping move, which transpired to be unproductive. The Pakistani armed forces interpreted it as Modi proclaiming South Asia is an India-centric region.

Now, with a mere 26 months left until end of term, panic has set in. Modi is charting a face-saving route to negotiations, with confidence building measures such as softening his stance on the new SAARC secretary-general and the Indus Water Treaty as well as exchange of prisoners.

But it’s catch-22 circumstances. As long as tensions persist in Indian-controlled Kashmir, Pakistan, because of its internal pressures, cannot afford to remain silent. And there is no sign of a return of normalcy in the Valley.

If Pakistan is behind the sustained unrest in Kashmir, Modi is paying a price for his bellicosity. Where India indulges in expensive bombardment of Pakistani positions across the LoC, Pakistan responds with a low-cost proxy war.

Neither Modi nor BJP grasps that a non-aggressive outlook is not a sign of weakness. A war-like posture without an agreeable end-game is, in fact, a foolish thought process.

If the Pakistani army has thwarted triggering of a most favoured nation trading arrangement for 21 years, it is unlikely to melt in the face of Modi’s overtures. Just as much as Musharraf could not be relied upon by India, it will be surprising if Pakistanis reposed faith in Modi.

Some pundits seem to translate Modi’s better than expected electoral performance in Uttar Pradesh as empowering him to change the status quo with Pakistan. On the other hand, the hard-core of his constituency could take a dim view of concessions to Pakistan, let alone any accommodation on Kashmir—which is the sole issue Islamabad is interested in.

There is also a deteriorating scenario in Afghanistan. If the United States doesn’t step in, Indo-Pak rivalry over this country will escalate and thereby not be conducive to better bilateralism. But Donald Trump’s hard-line on Muslims renders him less of a candidate than his predecessors to enjoy leverage with Pakistan.

This week the official spokesperson of the Chinese foreign ministry said: “China hopes that India and Pakistan can enhance mutual trust and improve relations through more dialogue.” Rather than be guided by it, South Block would probably treat that statement with suspicion.

Some pundits seem to translate Modi’s better than expected electoral performance in Uttar Pradesh as empowering him to change the status quo with Pakistan.

On the other hand, the hard-core of his constituency could take a dim view of concessions to Pakistan, let alone any accommodation on Kashmir—which is the sole issue Islamabad is interested in.

Modi can only win with the electorate if he secures a wholly favourable deal. Such a rapprochement is impossible.

London-based Ashish Ray, former head of CNN in India, is the longest serving Indian foreign correspondent


This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.

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Published: 15 Mar 2017, 11:16 AM