Saturday, January 09, 2016

            In a funny sort of way, Pakistan is a prime example of what is often called continuity in foreign policy, and also in domestic politics. Every government, regardless of which party it belongs to, falls back on the same old template of remaining engaged with Pakistan and dialoguing with them even though they know nothing much is likely to come out of it. And every opposition, regardless of the party, takes a more strident stand and accuses the government of the day of being soft on Pakistan. In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the Pathankot air base, which came within a week of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s very bold move to informally drop in on Nawaz Sharif in Lahore, Indian foreign policy and domestic politics is following the familiar trajectory – the ruling party defending its outreach to Pakistan, and the opposition excoriating the government policy towards Pakistan.
            Strangely, even the logic used and alibis given to defend the government policy has a continuity to it, albeit with minor changes in the terminologies used. For instance, there is the whole nonsense about ‘we can choose friends but not neighbours’ and that ‘we must have good relations with neighbours’. The thought is nice, in theory at least, but doesn’t quite take into account what sort of a neighbour you have and what that neighbours concept of relations with his neighbours is. It is, of course, India’s great and abiding misfortune to have an ‘international migraine’ (to use former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s evocative phrase) like Pakistan as its neighbour, even more so because in Pakistan the neighbour is often considered an enemy and the philosophy guiding relations with neighbours is that you must bring down the walls of the neighbour’s house even if you come under! Surely, the Punjabis in Mr Modi’s cabinet – the Finance Minister and External Affairs minister – are aware of this.
            Then there are the alibis. After Kargil, the then NDA government continued with the fiction that Nawaz Sharif wasn’t taken in the loop on what the Pakistan army was up to. Later, it became very clear that while all the operational details may not have been shared with Nawaz Sharif, he was aware of the army’s plans to make an ingress into India and hold territory which would force India out of Siachen and might even give Pakistan a leg up in Kashmir. After 26/11, the UPA government came up with the term ‘non-state actors’ to absolve the Pakistani state (which was clearly hand in glove with the terrorists) of responsibility so that the engagement process is not damaged beyond repair. After Pathankot, no one in government is ready to name the real culprits. Instead terms like ‘rogue elements’ and ‘enemies of humanity’ are being used.
Quite aside the fact that if we are not even willing to call a spade a spade, and rather than feel embarrassed or feel that it will spoil the atmospherics, use our candidness as a leverage in talks, we prefer to provide even more alibis. Even though the Pakistanis insist that the civilian government and the all-powerful military are on the same page as far as India is concerned, we insist they are not! This is almost like what the Pakistanis do with the Taliban: the Taliban claim responsibility for an attack and the Pakistanis keep saying that it wasn’t done by the Taliban and that just because the Taliban have claimed responsibility doesn’t mean they actually did the act.
Clearly, India makes a mistake by making a distinction between the civil and military, or between the Pakistan army and ISI. This gives Pakistan the wriggle room to play good-cop-bad-cop and doesn’t really give any comfort to India. After all, if the elected Prime Minister of Pakistan is a non-entity, then no purpose will be served by talking to him; and if he is the Chief Executive of the state, and he is as interested in a rapprochement with India as he claims, then he must prove this by taking action against the so-called spoilers, especially since it is inconceivable that an attack like Pathankot could have happened without the connivance and complicity of the Pakistan army (which includes the ISI).
There is also the myth that successive Indian governments have subscribed to, which is that talks can become a tool to tamper down, even end, terrorism being exported from Pakistan. The track record of talks indicates otherwise. In fact, every time India has taken the initiative to open talks with Pakistan, terrorism has been ramped up; and every time talks have been broken off by an angry India, incidents of terrorism or military adventurism have fallen. The 1999 Lahore bus diplomacy was followed by Kargil incursions; the 2001 Agra meeting was followed by the attack on J&K assembly and then the Parliament; the 2004 peace process saw the Mumbai serial train blasts (over 160 dead) in 2006 and then 26/11 in 2008; the Sharm-el-Sheikh meeting in 2009 was followed by the German Bakery blast in 2010 and Zaveri Bazaar blasts in 2011; after Ufa, we had Gurdaspur and Udhampur; and now after Lahore, there is Pathankot. An in-house study by the External Affairs ministry revealed that between 2004 and 2008 when relations between India and Pakistan were supposedly better than they had ever been in decades, there were 18 major terror attacks with a Pakistani fingerprint on them; In the four years after 2008 (26/11), there were only about half a dozen big attacks. Ergo, not talking to Pakistan keeps Indians safer than talking to Pakistan.
But with the PM having gone out on a limb and invested a lot of political and diplomatic capital to engage Pakistan in an attempt (the umpteenth one actually) to ‘turn the course of history’, Pathankot confronts India with a Hobson’s choice: if they break off the dialogue as a reaction to Pathankot, it will appear churlish, especially since everyone expected the ‘spoilers’ to try and sabotage the talks. Even the international community (for whatever it is worth) will not show any understanding for India’s predicament; on the other hand, if the government persists with the dialogue, it will have serious domestic political repercussions and worse, it will be seen in Pakistan as a sign that India has reconciled to talks and terror going side by side. In other words, Pakistan will see it as a license to continue with business as usual, which is one of the reasons for the attack. The Pakistanis are testing both India’s seriousness in engaging Pakistan, as well as India’s resolve to now allow terrorism going unanswered. This means India can’t be seen to be not doing anything. But what can it do is the billion dollar question.
Perhaps, for now the only option before the government is to carry on with the talks and when the foreign secretary visits Pakistan to discuss modalities he can insist on visible action by Pakistan against the people responsible for Pathankot. If the Pakistan's deliver (unlikely) India can go on with the engagement; if they stonewall, India can get out of this desultory dialogue.


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