India’s changed approach to Pakistan

Author - Baijayant 'Jay' Panda

Posted on - 29 October 2014

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This article was published on ‘The Times of India’ on 29th October 2014





Article Title:”Why Modi’s changed approach to Pakistan is likely to yield more détente”

Is India compromising its own national interest by retaliating against Pakistan’s firing across the Line of Control, and putting on hold the dialogue process? Several Indian foreign policy commentators think so, and have been writing cogently on the topic. On the other hand, Indian public opinion seems to be strongly in favour of robust tit for tat. Should that be dismissed as plain old fashioned mob mentality or is there a ‘wisdom of crowds’ that the experts are missing?

The gist of experts’ argument is that the years of ceasefire – which has largely held, if not always – have benefited India. There has been a significant reduction of infiltrators. In turn, that has meant peace has largely returned, tourism is up, and the electoral process is gaining ever more credibility as the means of fulfilling Kashmiri aspirations.

They also point to the hostile terrain and often-flimsy border fence. Their conclusion is that by retaliating India is playing into the hands of those in Pakistan who do not want a gradual normalisation in Jammu & Kashmir, and push through ‘non state actors’ under cover of mutual gunfire. There is merit in these arguments, and they must not be taken lightly.

Nevertheless, it is worth looking at the other side of the coin, and examining whether there is some logic for India’s changed approach. The fact is, despite incremental benefits, there has been no fundamental improvement in Indo-Pak relations. All efforts to upgrade the ceasefire into a permanent peace, or at least a real détente, have always been stymied in the end by Pakistan’s ‘Deep State’.

The best example of this was the collapse of the near-settlement negotiated through back-channel envoys during the Pervez Musharraf regime, which was repudiated by Pakistan after his ouster. Though the benefits of the ceasefire are real, this period has also seen the most egregious instances of cross border terrorism emanating from Pakistan, including the Mumbai attacks, with obvious links to the establishment.

Pakistan’s own internal crisis, from  decades of supporting terrorist outfits to wage an asymmetrical war with India, has now reached critical proportions. Despite that, and despite many protestations to the contrary, it does not appear that Pakistan’s establishment has had a real change of heart. In fact, there is much evidence that its ultimate arbiters of foreign policy have likely made only tactical changes, and not fundamentally revised their strategy.

This is no longer just an Indian inference; it is now also corroborated by a growing body of work by Pakistan experts from outside the subcontinent. Two recent books, by British journalist Carlotta Gall (The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan 2001-14) and American academic Christine Fair (Fighting to the End: the Pakistan Army’s Way of War), are cases in point. Gall highlights the flaws of the US war in Afghanistan, arguing instead that the country that needs tackling as root cause of the region’s strife is Pakistan.

Fair’s book is equally scathing, and extensively documents the Pakistan army’s track record of unprovoked aggression, duplicity, and of holding its own country hostage. She makes a compelling case for why it is in the Pakistan army’s DNA to deliberately and continually engage India. That is why the ceasefire breaks down every single time a civilian government in Pakistan decides to respond to an Indian olive branch, or extend one of its own.

Although the alleged existential threat from India ought to have been passé once Pakistan became a nuclear state, it has not. In fact, Pakistan has adroitly played on fears of nuclear escalation, as well as its strategic geography, to keep the West interested, and in particular to shake down the US from time to time.

But the world in 2014 is a vastly different place than a decade ago. Despite American compulsions about supply routes to, and exiting from Afghanistan, it is getting ever more difficult for Pakistan to extract baksheesh from them. And ‘all-weather friend’ China, while happy to have helped Pakistan go nuclear and always willing to invest in ports and such, has made it clear that it is not going to be suckered into becoming the new sugar daddy. All that is further compounded by disquiet in Balochistan, as well as a no-longer pliant Afghanistan.

This, then, may be the perfect time to reset the dismal cycle of Indo-Pak relations into a true détente, a live-and-let-live attitude not just in letter but also in spirit. But that is not going to happen by business as usual, which for the past dozen years has meant Pakistan’s army having  a veto on the LoC ceasefire, with India wringing its hands and waiting for the temperature to cool. It will require demonstrating to Pakistan its bandwidth limitations and vanishing white knights.

India’s highest policymakers are not accidentally meandering into kneejerk responses. Their response is calculated, and surrounded by policy outreach to other stakeholders, including all neighbours. It is also based on the understanding that the improvement in J&K is not primarily due to the Pakistani Deep State’s munificence, but mainly by our own acknowledgement of past domestic mistakes and their rectification.

In his book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki argued that “under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them”. Perhaps this is one of those times.