Modi’s muscular policy is not working, time to talk to Pakistan

Exploring dialogue with Pakistan, alongside a sensitive approach to Kashmir and firm measures against terror groups, can be beneficial

Sushil Aaron March 14, 2019 13:38:32 IST
Modi’s muscular policy is not working, time to talk to Pakistan
  • Tensions between India and Pakistan deepened after the Pulwama suicide attack by Pakistan-based JeM killed at least 40 CRPF jawans on February 14

  • Indian Air Force carried out retaliatory strikes at an alleged Jaish-e-Mohammed terror camp at Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan

  • Both sides lost an aircraft each, and IAF wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman was detained by Pakistan authorities

Modis muscular policy is not working time to talk to Pakistan

India needs to reset its priorities. Illustration: Shatakshi

In 2014 when Narendra Modi came to power, the expectation was that he would set India’s sights on the world and perhaps compete with China. This flowed from the conviction that India was too big to be preoccupied with Pakistan, a country one-sixth its population size and one-eighth its economy in GDP terms.

And yet, five years on, India is hardly spoken in the same breath as China and finds itself bogged down with Pakistan, with a chunk of its political energies consumed by the neighbour and insurgency in Kashmir. The political attention needed for India’s development has, for years, been derailed by the effects of a fraught bilateral relationship. India is where Pakistan and China want it to be: embittered, internally divided with a social climate easily manipulable by events and non-state actors.

India needs to reset its priorities, though no one expects Modi to do this on the election trail. One way is to recognise that the militarist and muscular approach has not worked. The Modi government has tried three things simultaneously – isolate Pakistan internationally, make talks conditional on action against terrorists while adopting a hardline approach in Kashmir, which has consolidated militant resistance and taken a high toll on civilians and security forces.

Modi’s strategy has not changed Pakistan’s behaviour nor pacified the Valley. India’s approach must be based on accepting certain realities. One, that after the Balakot strikes, India will struggle to achieve counterterrorist objectives by military action alone. There are doubts about the number of terrorists killed in the airstrike. Pakistan will be more alert to future incursions and the capture of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman proves that conflicts can escalate quickly which India may not want. Militancy in Kashmir will continue and the net result is more instability and heightened Delhi-Islamabad tensions that have a toxic effect on India’s domestic politics.

It may thus be prudent to explore dialogue with Pakistan that Imran Khan has called for. India’s security hawks characterise this as appeasement and argue that there is no point in pursuing dialogue because elements in the Pakistan army and terrorist groups have a history of scuttling talks.

In empirical terms that is true but three counter arguments can be proposed. First, no one said it will be easy. Leaders are expected to improve conditions rather than score easy points by posturing. Two, political initiatives in the past did improve the security situation. The casualty figures in J&K dropped from 4,507 in 2001 to 117 in 2012 owing to attempts to normalise ties, via Manmohan Singh’s diplomatic efforts with General Pervez Musharraf and the subsequent PPP and PML (N) governments. That scenario is better than a never-ending conflict in Kashmir, which has seen over 900 killed since 2017.

Three, dialogue is not an attempt to reach an India-Pakistan grand bargain. Not yet anyway. Talks are India’s instruments to achieve its objective of a stable civilian government in Pakistan, one that works within its system to improve ties with India and fortifies its constituency for peace to gradually blunt elements in the army and civil society that do not want normalisation. This is a long-term endeavour.

Terror groups cannot be neutralised by military means alone as the US has found out in Afghanistan – defeating them is a political process and an influence enterprise in society that will see serious setbacks but also foster progress over the long-term. Talks provide the atmospherics for that process to continue by (simultaneously) facilitating people-to-people ties, discussing thorny issues, testing mutual commitments, clarifying redlines and so on.

Dialogue can also have salutary effects on India’s domestic politics. The country’s public sphere is replete with anti-Pakistan rhetoric that is used as a shorthand to target Indian Muslims. Engagement with Pakistan can roll this back to an extent and help Modi to evolve as a politician in a different direction, should he wish, for his identity is now trapped in his polarising rhetoric – one that doesn’t allow the politician who wins elections for the BJP to emerge as the judicious statesman India needs.

Exploring dialogue with Pakistan, alongside a sensitive approach to Kashmir and firm measures against terror groups, can be beneficial. It will allow India to manage Pakistan as a challenge and focus on other pressing matters such as poverty, jobs, and the rise of China.

(Sushil Aaron is a commentator on India’s politics and international affairs.)

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