Author : Sushant Sareen

Originally Published 2018-09-25 06:35:33 Published on Sep 25, 2018
India needs to change its policy with Pakistan, and breaking the so-called stalemate is not the answer.
India shot itself in the foot by agreeing to a Pak ‘meeting’

What was the government of India thinking when it agreed to a meeting between India’s external affairs minister and the Pakistani foreign minister on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session in New York? Unless the Indian High Commission in Islamabad is suffering from acute localitis, and the intelligence agencies of the Indian state have become an adjunct of some NGO peddling “peace activism”, the government’s own sources of information would have informed it on the sheer futility of engaging with the newly (s)elected government of Pakistan.

What was equally perplexing was the appalling timing of the announcement that India had agreed to a meeting with Pakistan’s foreign minister.

For a government that prides itself on having a finger on the pulse of public opinion, to announce the meeting a day after a BSF soldier had been killed and his body mutilated, and a Pakistani newspaper published a story on postage stamps issued in honour of a slain Kashmiri terrorist, this was akin to shooting itself in the foot.

The outrage that followed should have been anticipated. The government was probably still reeling under the onslaught of this outrage when news came in of the brutal murder of three policemen in Kashmir by terrorist proxies of the Islamic State of Pakistan. This gave the government the excuse to fix its blunder and call off the talks—sorry, meeting—with the Pakistani foreign minister. In the process, although the government managed to control the damage done by a glaringly bad decision, the flip-flop approach didn’t do much for the Modi government’s standing, both in India and abroad.

The government should have smelt a rat the moment they received Imran Khan’s letter proposing a meeting in New York. A close reading of the contents of that letter leaves no doubt that the Pakistanis were giving salience to Kashmir, Sir Creek and Siachen. Terrorism was mentioned in a pro forma sort of way. But the real purpose was to inveigle a return to the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue (CBD) process.

The letter sketched out a sort of roadmap to put this process back on track. That India agreed to a “meeting” (and not a dialogue, as the MEA spokesman took great pains to clarify) as a result of this letter, suggests that the two foreign ministers wouldn’t only be exchanging pleasantries and would discuss something more substantial than the weather.

It is entirely possible that the Indian EAM would have used the meeting to lay down what Pakistan needed to do in order for the CBD to restart—taking demonstrable action against terrorist groups operating inside Pakistan, stopping the export of terrorism, ending hostile propaganda within and outside Pakistan. This would create an environment that would be conducive for getting back on the table for dialoguing on all the other issues, including Jammu and Kashmir—after all, India has a serious problem with how Pakistan is changing the character and demography of part of the state that it continues to illegally occupy.

But this message could have been delivered even without going through the tamasha of a separate “meeting”. Normally such “meetings” have an agenda that is worked out beforehand by officials, which means it wouldn’t have been just the EAM reading the riot act to her Pakistani counterpart. Instead, since the foreign ministers of SAARC nations were already scheduled to meet, the Indian EAM could have done a “pull-aside” with the Pakistani minister and used those 5-10 minutes to deliver whatever message she had to give and also measure the seriousness on the Pakistani side. Alternatively, the government could have responded to Imran Khan’s letter with another letter politely telling him what was expected of his government before a dialogue on all issues of mutual interest could commence. This would have conveyed the message without any needless controversy, much less embarrassment.

It’s also surprising that the government didn’t realise the Pakistani game-plan, which is to appear reasonable to the world by inviting India to a dialogue even as they continue exporting terrorism into India. This has been the standard operating procedure: talk the nice stuff, do the rotten stuff. It’s been done to death and if India still fell for the same old trick, the blame lies on India, not Pakistan.

It should also be noted that while Pakistan sent this letter on September 14, the incident of mutilation on the border happened on September 18-19. The postage stamps were issued in July, but the news story publicising it came out the day India announced the “meeting”. Surely this wasn’t a coincidence. And yet, the “mandarins” didn’t wake up and smell the coffee that nothing had changed in “Naya Pakistan”.

It shouldn’t have taken the dastardly murder of three J&K policemen or the barbaric mutilation of a BSF jawan for the Indian government to have an epiphany of the “true face” of Imran Khan. Like his predecessors, Imran Khan—often lampooned as Im the Dim—is quite clearly “a small man occupying a (not so) big office”, because this office has been emasculated by the puppeteers in khaki who pull all the strings. This is not just the assessment of analysts in India, but also of Western diplomats posted in Islamabad. But precisely because he is seen as a poodle of the men in uniform, there is a body of opinion in India which is advocating talking to him because it is akin to talking to the military. This is puerile logic: Khan is going to play good cop to the Pakistan Army and bad cop to its jihadist auxiliaries.

India needs to demonstrate consistency in policy. Instead of constantly resiling every few months from the principled stand that there can be no political level engagement with Pakistan until they do the things required to make the environment conducive for a dialogue, India must start treating Pakistan with disdain until it proves worthy of being engaged in a serious dialogue. The old style diplomacy being advocated by some former diplomats has been tried for over 70 years and has virtually nothing to show for it. This needs to be junked and a new, more aggressive, robust, even in-your-face style of diplomacy needs to be adopted with the Pakistanis to show them their place.

Even more importantly, Indian officials and politicians need to stop thinking about breaking the so-called stalemate between the two countries. This is a war of wills between two countries. The one with greater staying power will win this contest. By constantly trying to break the stalemate, India shows itself to be the weak party. Nothing gives a tottering Pakistan more confidence than to see Indian leaders fall over themselves to re-engage with them.

There is really nothing that we stand to gain from Pakistan. Economically, it has ceased to matter for the Indian growth story. All the calculation of tens of billions of dollars of trade and commerce between India and Pakistan are nothing but pies in the sky, not very different from the snake oil that Imran Khan sold to his people during the election campaign. The connectivity through Pakistan to West and Central Asia can be substituted by other routes. The only thing Pakistan can give us is ending the export of terrorism, which it is ideologically and psychologically not inclined to do. But terrorism from Pakistan is at worst an irritant, not an obstacle to India’s rise.

When India engages Pakistan without Pakistan giving up this instrument in its arsenal, Pakistan gets emboldened to continue persisting with it, even escalating it. When India disengages and starts baring its fangs, the terrorism still continues but at a lower level, because the Pakistanis are afraid that it could lead to India doing something that will force them into a situation they cannot afford or handle. Therefore, there is little purchase in engaging Pakistan until it reforms or perishes.

This doesn’t mean that India should continue to absorb the terrorism emanating from Pakistan. Quite to the contrary, India needs to develop the necessary capabilities and capacities to deny, deter and if necessary punish Pakistan every time it indulges in any adventurism. This won’t happen through re-engaging, but through psychologically degrading Pakistan to a point that it cannot afford to stand up to or against India.

This commentary originally appeared  in Newslaundry.

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Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. His published works include: Balochistan: Forgotten War, Forsaken People (Monograph, 2017) Corridor Calculus: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor & China’s comprador   ...

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