The triple rebuffs earlier this month need to be taken very seriously. Once we are done pillorying the prime minister and the national security advisor for having tried to engage with Pakistan, serious questions need to be asked about where all this is heading. My sense is that the portents are very negative.
First, China exercised its United Nations veto to defend Masood Azhar (one of the three who was released from jail when an Indian Airlines plane was hijacked to Kandahar by Pakistanis in 1999). Then, a Pakistani investigation team which had visited Pathankot let it be known that it thinks the Pathankot attack at the end of December was staged by Indian agencies. And to cap that, Pakistan’s High Commissioner announced that the Indo-Pakistan peace talks were off.
This is uncharacteristic. For the longest time, Pakistan has gone to great lengths to complain before the international community that India is not willing to negotiate. It is India that has called off negotiations in the past, citing terrorism or bad faith on Pakistan’s part.
Perhaps it is time to read the three successive rebuffs along with some other trends that have been unfolding. The most dangerous of these trends is Pakistan’s huge thrust in the production of tactical nuclear weapons – weapons, that is, that are meant to be used on the battle field, rather than as deterrents. Pakistan’s stepped-up production has swiftly advanced its position in the ranks of owners of nuclear weapons. The Washington Post reported last August that Pakistan could have the world’s third largest nuclear stockpile in a decade. For what sort of battles could its tactical nuclear weapons be meant?
While India’s strategic planners might feel secure with regard to a conventional armed forces face-off between the two countries, the use of nuclear weapons would change the matrix. Not only that, a couple of other factors are in play which could change the matrix to India’s disadvantage. One unsettling trend is the upsurge in militant encounters in Kashmir. Not only have the number of young Kashmiri militants increased, there has been a quantum leap in public support for them. Particularly in 1947 and 1965, Pakistani intruders did not find the sort of public support they had expected on the ground in Kashmir.
A third pertinent trend is the repeated incursions into Indian territory of Chinese troops in the Ladakh area over the past few years. It has happened several times since the Beijing Olympics got over. For a while, China stopped recognizing the Indian passports of residents of Jammu and Kashmir. China does not take such major steps without clear long-term objectives.
So it would be foolhardy to brush aside China’s announcement that it considers that it has a stake at the negotiating table for the resolution of the Kashmir issue. It has after all taken over large territories in the state for its road, rail and other projects. These are of vital economic interest for China. India’s strategic thinkers tend to be ostrich-like with regard to Sino-Pakistani coordination, despite the fact that General Musharraf chose to be in Beijing during the early part of the Kargil war. It is a mistake to think that Pakistan is under the influence of the US. Its real mentor is China. In its turn, Pakistan has been of great value to China.
China’s promise to invest $46 billion in areas under Pakistan not only signifies the strengthening of the relationship. It has also changed the India-Pakistan matrix, for Pakistan has become far more buoyant on the economic front over the past few months than it has been for several years.
Perhaps some of these factors contributed to bringing the recent peace process into being. It got going in December after the two prime ministers met briefly in Paris, but it was not sparked by a sudden moment of Parisian bonhomie. The path towards rapprochement had been carefully laid for at least a couple of months before that. Pressure from the US had played a part.
Prime Minister Modi’s stopover in Lahore and Raiwind on the way back from Kabul on 25 December was also not simply an off-the-cuff goodwill gesture on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s birthday (and his grand-daughter’s wedding). According to those in the know, a lot of planning preceded it.
Given the hard line the Modi government had taken since the summer of 2014, it must have had good reason to change tack. The series of attacks in the Jammu and north Punjab regions, including daring attacks at police stations at Samba and Gurdaspur, must surely have figured in the government’s calculations.
Looking back, the Modi government would have done well to have engaged purposefully with Pakistan soon after it came to power in the summer of 2014. It had a position of strength then. Once India had taken a hard-line position, agreeing to talk to Pakistan in the wake of those attacks was a mistaken strategy. Pakistan’s security establishment was bound to read it as their success at scaring India.
General Musharraf had similarly misread Mr Vajpayee’s Lahore visit to the extent that he stepped up militancy, including suicide attacks – until the Indian Army massed at the border in December 2011. Musharraf backed down in January, and finally came round to negotiations in January 2004 since Vajpayee continued his peace initiatives with unflagging perseverance.
In light of what has happened over the past couple of weeks, one must praise Narasimha Rao’s masterful strategy in the early 1990s. He simply ignored Pakistan throughout his five years in office. Working on home ground, he ended the Punjab militancy quite early in that period. Kashmir too was controlled to a large extent, even though Pakistan steadily increased the intensity of war-by-other-means until at least 1994.
Of course, switching to the Rao strategy would make no sense at this stage. Pakistan’s recent negativity has already been determined by India’s peaceable initiatives over the past six or seven months. Now, in response to its openly hard-knuckled stance, India’s security establishment needs to prepare for the unexpected – and for an even greater concert in the strategies and tactics of Pakistan and China.