Saturday, January 09, 2016

            If there is one thing that distinguishes Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s style of diplomacy from that of his predecessors, it is unpredictability. His highly personalised and unconventional foreign policy initiatives have left the army of Delhi’s ‘know-it-all, seen-it-all’ analysts and journalists watching with ‘shock and awe’ as he pulls one surprise after another in the diplomatic domain. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his dealings with Pakistan. Equally, no other place has been as impervious to his go-getting attitude than Pakistan.
Clearly, after the Pathankot terrorist attack, which came within a week of Mr Modi’s extremely bold move of ‘dropping in’ impromptu on his Pakistani counterpart in Lahore to wish him on his birthday, even Mr Modi would have been left scratching his head over how to handle a country like Pakistan with which nothing – neither estrangement nor engagement, neither aggression nor amicability – seems to work. All of Mr Modi’s predecessors were confronted with the same enigma, and bowed out of office without finding an answer to India’s Pakistan problem. And if recent events are anything to go by, Mr Modi’s Pakistan gambit is unlikely to fare any better.
            Since assuming office, Mr Modi has demonstrated that he is not afraid to swim against the tide. This has left practically everyone guessing as to what he will do. Everyone expected him to be resentful of the West which had treated him as a pariah, but he went out of his way to befriend the West; everyone thought he will be soft on Nepal, but he played hardball when the Nepalese tried to play too clever by half on the issue of the constitution; and everyone thought he will take a very hard line on Pakistan, but he has gone out of his way to reach out to Pakistan. The blow-hot-blow-cold state of ties between India and Pakistan – four initiatives in the last eighteen months interspersed with war of words (bilaterally and in the UN) and aggressive posturing on the ground, especially along the LoC in J&K – has come under severe criticism for inconsistency, even lack of clarity and coherence, in policy.
And yet, Mr Modi has persevered. He hasn’t let either the pressure of media or even that of public opinion and the political opposition detract him from whatever he is trying to do with Pakistan. Of course, what exactly he is trying to do remains fuzzy, because once you cut through the cosmetics (which are new), the sum and substance of his effort is no different from that of his predecessors. To be sure, Mr Modi has managed to wrest control of the narrative by doing the unpredictable – calling up Nawaz Sharif when least expected and calling on him when it was beyond anyone’s imagination. But controlling the optics is only part of the equation and doesn’t quite address the question of addressing the substantive and apparently intractable issues that bedevil relations between the two countries. This is important because there is nothing in the public domain to indicate how these issues are proposed to be tackled. What compromise formula has been worked out, what will be the give-and-take, and will Mr Modi and his Pakistani counterpart be able to sell this formula (if at all it exists) to their peoples, political opposition and, most importantly, their establishments.
The other problem is that while Mr Modi can manage things on the Indian side, there isn’t much he has in his store to influence Pakistan in the way he wants. This means that while Mr Modi might believe that optics is substance and if the optics can be managed long enough, the substantive issues will become irrelevant and therefore amenable to solution, the Pakistani side might be on a totally different wavelength and would want to keep giving rude reminders to India that it continues to wield a gun and occasionally isn’t averse to firing it on India. In other words, while Mr Modi might have felt that the optics – Lahore visit – will bind Pakistan’s hands and make it difficult for them to spoil the atmospherics, the Pakistanis might come to the conclusion that Mr Modi’s optics strategy has in fact tied his hands and will make it difficult and deeply embarrassing for him to go into a sulk if they do what they do – Pathankot. In a sense, this is precisely what happened in Kargil: India assumed that after both countries went nuclear and war wasn’t an exercisable option, the path for peace and a grand reconciliation was open; Pakistan came to the conclusion that because there could be no war, it opened up space for a Kargil type operation. Ergo, for Pakistan perversity isn’t an irrational response, but a default response to any Indian initiative. This lesson of history appears to have been ignored by Mr Modi in his bold outreach, and inexplicable keenness, to engage with Pakistan.
Mr Modi must have known that reaching out to Pakistan was a high risk gamble. If he had succeeded, he would be hailed globally; but there was far higher probability that he would fail, in which case he would be condemned and dragged over hot coals by both his opponents and many of his supporters, more so because his political rhetoric on Pakistan was at total variance with his diplomatic initiatives. It is in this sense, Pathankot is not just a litmus test to check Pakistan’s sincerity and seriousness on wanting a dialogue with India, but also a test for Mr Modi’s policy on Pakistan. Not doing anything isn’t an option.
A lot will now depend on whether the Pakistanis act on the information and intelligence that has been shared with them. If they do, Mr Modi’s gamble would have paid off and Pakistani action against terrorists operating against India would effect a change in the paradigm between the two countries; But given how unlikely it is that we will see any serious action by Pakistan, even then Mr Modi’s gamble would have paid off, at least in a small way. He can use Pakistan's perfidy to good effect with the international community and try and re-build international pressure on Pakistan on the issue of terrorism. Of course, in the event things come to such a pass, the Indo-Pak track would be back to square one. But given Mr Modi’s proclivity to surprise, he might once again do something no one expects. What that will be is anyone’s guess.




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