What next? After Pathankot attack, will politics of last atrocity drive India-Pakistan ties again?

Breakfast at Kabul, lunch at Lahore and dinner in New Delhi. Within just a week of the euphoria of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's surprise pit-stop in Pakistan, there has been a terrible post script: Funeral in Pathankot.

The bonhomie towards the end of the year promised by the Modi-Nawaz Sharif hug has been replaced by consternation and frustration because the India-Pakistan relation has yet again come full circle after the terror strike in Pathankot. On the cusp of  the new year, there were hopes of dialogue and reconciliation; now there is just hostility and uncertainty, the two inevitable results of almost every peace initiative.

In the past 18 months, Modi had tried almost everything possible to deal with Pakistan. From inviting Sharif for his swearing-in, to cold-shouldering him on the international stage and then once again extending his hand of friendship at Lahore, there isn't much Modi had left out. But India is once again back at the starting line.

What will Modi do now?

PM Modi's meeting with Nawaz Sharif. AFP

PM Modi's meeting with Nawaz Sharif. AFP

Contrary to popular perception of a weak dispensation, soon after the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, the Manmohan Singh government had considered military options against Pakistan.

At a meeting convened soon after the 26/11 strikes, five options were considered by the Indian government at a meeting with its top army and intelligence brass. Almost all of them had one objective in mind: Punishing the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and destroying its jihadi structure across the border.

In his memoirs, Neither a Hawk Nor a Dove, former Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri says all these options--including a covert mission against LeT, air strikes on terror camps and a limited war-- were brought to his notice by the US administration, which was aware of the Indian discussions.

After discussing these options for almost a fortnight, the UPA government decided to abandon them because of two factors: One, there was no guarantee that it wouldn't escalate into a nuclear conflict. Two, many feared that it would unite all jihadi groups in Pakistan, including those fighting against the host country, against India.

Have the ground realities changed since 2008 to convince the Modi government that it can implement a policy of hot pursuit against terrorists from across the border without risking a full-scale war? No, if the contrast between candidate Modi and PM Modi is an indication.

In 2011, in an interview to India TV, Modi had mocked the UPA for running to the US after every terror attack. "Padosi mar ke chala jaye aur America jaate ho, arre Pakistan jao na," he had said to a rapturous applause. "Pakistan should be taught a lesson in the language it understands. Love letter likhna band karna chahiye," Modi had opined then.

Soon after the June 2015 mission against terrorists on the India-Myanmar border, Union minister Rajyavardhan Rathore had indicated that India would now not be averse to following the Modi doctrine of chasing militants from across the border.

"It had become a joke, like in kabaddi, that they would attack and go back to their half, where nobody could attack them. Now if somebody attacks India, we will carry out surgical strikes," Rathore had outlined the new doctrine after the Myanmar incident.

But a PM can't afford the recklessness and bombast of an opposition leader. So, Modi and his government have been quite restrained in their response to the attack on the air base in Pathankot, in spite of the fact that it threatens to negate the PM's Lahore initiative. Modi's language and tone--he called the militants enemies of humanity, instead of blaming Pakistan--suggests the Indian PM has raised his threshold much higher and is willing to give peace more of a chance.

Unfortunately for India, even its peace initiatives do not guarantee success. Soon after Modi's Lahore visit, The Diplomat magazine had wondered if the exciting and auspicious beginning could lead to the desired result, considering the paucity of options before the two countries.

"The two countries have conflicting expectations of each other and different priorities. Pakistan has long argued that the Kashmir dispute be resolved first, or at least in conjunction with other areas of mutual concern. Regardless of who is in power, India has been and will remain unwilling to offer to Pakistan any concessions on Kashmir, even if it means foregoing the economic dividends of trade with Pakistan and transit trade through Pakistan to Afghanistan and Central Asia. India instead has remained focused on terrorism, especially since 2008 Mumbai attack which it blamed on Pakistan-based banned outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba," it wrote, pointing at the challenges ahead.

But, even before the two countries could build on the beginning, the attack on Pathankot has put a question mark over the future of bilateral talks.

With his party and the RSS backing him and the international community insisting on continued diplomatic engagement, Modi would be tempted to continue with his peace agenda, hoping that it would be more productive than confrontation and a cold war.

As strategic affairs expert Ashley J Tellis argues in an article on rediff.com, Modi seems to have resolved to sustain the engagement with Sharif's government indefinitely because there was a clear realisation that although Sharif's control over his 'Deep State' -- meaning, the military and the intelligence services, which controlled among other things various terrorist proxies -- was weak, Sharif's desire for better ties with India ought to be nurtured and rewarded.

Such is the nature of India-Pakistan relations that it is always vulnerable to the politics of last atrocity-- when the latest act of violence and consequent retaliation decides the direction of politics. For the moment, Modi would be relying on the euphoria of his 'breakfast in Kabul and lunch in Lahore' initiative to carry forward his Pakistan policy.

But one more funeral can change all that.

Updated Date: Jan 05, 2016 15:18 PM

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