By Seema Guha
A terror attack follows India-Pakistan peace moves, much as night follows day. This has been the pattern since Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Lahore bus diplomacy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi must have factored this in when he embarked on the perilous peace process with Nawaz Sharif.
Knives and daggers will be out for Modi not just from the opposition but more significantly, from his own hard-line support base.
How the prime minister deals with this will prove whether he has grown with the job or will the job outgrow him.
For one, the attack on Pathankot air force station is a major one culminating in the tragic death of three jawans. The situation, though, could have truly gone out of hand had the terrorists been able to blow up a jet or a helicopter parked in the hanger at the IAF base. Public anger would have then surely forced Modi to call off the dialogue.
The question is, where does the India-Pakistan dialogue go from here?
Foreign secretary Jai Shankar is slated to travel to Islamabad two weeks from now for talks with his counterpart.
Will he go?
BJP’s past jibe at former prime minister Manmohan Singh, that “terror and talks” can’t go together, will now come back to haunt Modi.
Expectedly, government sources are tight-lipped and say it is too early to take a call.
MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup tweeted “On #PathankotAttack : Operations continuing, immediate focus on resolving situation -premature to say anything more at this point.”
A senior government functionary, speaking on condition of anonymity, echoed the MEA spokesperson. “We have to wait and see and do a thorough investigation to find out the group or groups involved.”
“The government will do what is right in national interest,” the official said, adding: “Much will depend on what the investigations throw up. We are not saying that terror is insulated from talks or that the peace process will stop. We will take the next step once all facts are before us.”
Despite all this the talks are unlikely to be called off just yet.
“The PM is unlikely to suspend the initiative he has taken so soon after the Lahore stopover. It will be a loss of face for him. The government will find a formulation which is acceptable and perhaps say that Jai Shankar will travel to Islamabad to take up the issue.
“I suspect NSA Ajit Doval is already in touch with Lt Gen Naseer Khan Janjua on the subject. Some conciliatory noises will also come from Pakistan.
“Of course, when the initiative was taken, both sides knew that such an attack could take place to stall the talks,” says former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh.
But words are not enough. Things will become complicated if investigations find that either Lashkar-e-Taiba or Jaish-e-Mohammed is involved in the Pathankot terrorist attack.
It will then be incumbent on Pakistan to take action on whoever is behind it, whether they are state or non-state actors.
Jaish-e-Mohammed’s name has already emerged as an early claimant.
JeM is an anti-India terror group headed by Maulana Masood Azhar, one of the terrorists let free by New Delhi during the 1999 hijack of an Indian Airlines plane.
The JeM was used extensively for anti-India operations by Pakistan’s spy agency at one time. It was responsible for the audacious attack on Indian Parliament, but has been rather quiet in the last few years.
So far there has been no official confirmation, though, of JeM’s involvement.
“It is sad that the terrorist attack on Pathankot air base has come just a week after the Prime Minister’s visit to Lahore. Nevertheless, I believe that India-Pakistan engagement needs to continue.
“Disrupting talks once again will achieve nothing since Pakistan knows that soon we will head back to the table without it having given up on any of its hostile policies.
“Each time we repeat this pattern of behaviour, our credibility gets eroded and there is increasingly less likelihood of our warnings on cross border terrorism being taken seriously,” said another former foreign secretary, Shyam Saran.
“We have to find other ways of influencing Pakistan’s calculus on this issue,” he said.
But for more than three decades, India has not been able to hit the right spot. Forget Delhi, even a super power like the US has not been able to curb Pakistan’s activities in Afghanistan and knows well it has to rely on Pakistan’s military chief, General Raheel Sharif, to get the Taliban back to the table for talks with the Afghan government.
Pakistan has condemned Pathankot terror attack and said it wants to work with India and other countries to fight this menace.
Prime Minister Modi has been criticized for not having a clear-cut Pakistan policy. He will have to watch his step clearly after this, as forces both in Pakistan and India are against any sort of rapproachment between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.