A considered disentanglement

With respect to the subcontinent, India can benefit from greater regional cooperation, economic integration and connectivity.

At this year’s Annual Conclave of Indian Ambassadors/High Commissioners, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh offered his vision for Indian foreign policy engagement which “seeks to blend the economic imperative of unleashing prosperity without compromising on the core values of democracy, pluralism and secularism.” The prime minister put forward five core principles to guide Indian foreign policy engagement.  With regard to India’s immediate region, he opined that “the Indian subcontinent’s shared destiny requires greater regional cooperation and connectivity. Towards this end, we must strengthen regional institutional capability and capacity and invest in connectivity.”


High-profile domestic scandals on corruption and a stagnating economy in recent years have detracted attention from foreign policy imperatives and engagement with the world. A renewed focus on these issues, therefore, is welcome. With respect to the subcontinent, India can benefit from greater regional cooperation, economic integration and connectivity. Greater economic integration and connectivity can, in turn, be drivers of peace and prosperity if regional actors are equally invested in their pursuit.

The subcontinent, however, is not without its troubles. Islamists allied with political parties attempt to undermine moderate and secular forces in Bangladesh, while Maoist hardliners threaten Nepal’s nascent experiment with democracy.  Justice still eludes Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority four years after the end of a prolonged and bloody civil war, even as the ruling coalition seeks to pass constitutional amendments to consolidate its own power.

However, with these many challenges facing India’s neighbours also comes hope. India remains the largest trading partner of Nepal and Sri Lanka, while it exports more to Bangladesh than any other country apart from China. Bangladesh, for all its internal fissures, has managed to sustain growth rates of 6-7 percent for the last several years; this is encouraging to India. A resolution of lingering boundary disputes will allow both India and Bangladesh to settle into more a more ‘normal’, neighbourly relationship with one another over time. And although newspaper headlines tend to gravitate towards tension between Sri Lanka and India on the issue of restitution of Tamil minorities, much of the multi-faceted deepening of economic and strategic ties between the two countries goes unreported.

The only exception to the rule, however, is Pakistan. Since its inception, Pakistan has defined itself as the ideological antithesis of India, often going to lengths to deny any suggested shared history or culture with India.  Indeed, in his recently-published book Magnificent Delusions, former Pakistan ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani describes how Muhammad Ali Jinnah, even prior to Partition, had rescinded Mahatma Gandhi’s call for a joint defence plan for the subcontinent by suggesting that “his people” were looking to linking up with the Arab states.

The years of a state-mandated drift away from subcontinental traditions and towards conservative Islam has ultimately yielded the puritanical experiment currently underway in Pakistan which disenfranchises, maligns and ostracises citizens not of the favoured ethnic and religious dispensation.  The ‘mujahideen’ that the state apparatus bred for holy wars in Kashmir and Afghanistan are engaged in new wars inside and against the state of Pakistan. Institutions of the state, which Robinson and Acemoglu identified as being vital to the development of successful nations in their book Why Nations Fail, are in varying stages of decay and collapse in Pakistan.

Where there are opportunities and hopes for progress with India’s other neighbours despite the many issues of contention, with Pakistan one is hard-pressed to identify positives in the relationship, if it can even be called that.  Successive prime ministers in India have attempted rapprochement with our western neighbour. Prime Minister IK Gurjal, for example, postulated magnanimity without reciprocity as an approach to relations with all subcontinental neighbours, including Pakistan. PM Atal Behari Vajpayee and his successor, Dr Manmohan Singh, attempted engagement with Pakistan, but Pakistan’s reckless pursuit of terrorism in India put paid to any possibility of progress on both occasions.

With the war in Afghanistan now winding down, Pakistan appears to also be returning to pre-2002 positions on Jammu & Kashmir.  The 26/11 trial in Pakistan might as well have never been initiated as Hafiz Saeed continues to be a free man, holding cross-country rallies against India, the U.S. and Israel.  Nawaz Sharif, who many commentators in India saw as a beacon of hope for peace between India and Pakistan has done little but echo the narratives of his masters in Rawalpindi. A worthy question for India’s leaders to ponder over, therefore, is whether a relentless pursuit of chimerical notions of ‘peace’ with Pakistan is worth the effort. Isn’t our energy and attention better directed elsewhere?

Dr Christine Fair, in her June 2012 piece in Foreign Policy magazine entitled “What to Do About Pakistan” argued that a U.S. policy of “benign neglect” towards Pakistan might help undermine Rawalpindi’s ability to wage perpetual war through jihadi proxies in its neighbourhood under the cover of nuclear deterrence.  As a neighbour to Pakistan, however, India cannot afford the luxury of a “benign neglect” of Pakistan.  The geopolitical realities of the subcontinent inhibit the sort of total disconnect with Pakistan sometimes favoured by hawkish commentators in India. But if we are reconciled to the reality that a grand and dramatic rapprochement with Pakistan is not a possibility (nor a necessity), can we pursue a policy that limits us to a more or less transactional relationship with our western neighbour?

Within the contours of this limited and transactional relationship, India will need to ensure that protocols for stable nuclear deterrence continue to operate effectively in the subcontinent.  Thus, dialogue between India and Pakistan on maintaining and strengthening existing ballistic missile test pre-notification protocols and nuclear CBMs are of paramount importance to both India and Pakistan. Other mechanisms to mitigate the escalation of hostilities such as the nuclear and DGMO hotlines are important, but their effectiveness will most likely be questionable given prevailing levels of mistrust between the two countries. Consultations over the liberalisation of trade and travel can be encouraged without extrapolating their obviously limited benefits to the possibility of a grand settlement on all outstanding issues.

None of this, of course, will reduce Pakistan’s propensity for terrorism directed at India.  Our focus ought to be in reforming and enhancing our archaic internal security and law enforcement mechanisms.  Equally, as articulated in a previous piece in Pragati, India needs to build capacity for punitive action to undermine Pakistan’s adventurism against India. This can entail reinstating covert operations capabilities inside Pakistan and developing offensive cyber operations capabilities to target military, satellite and communication networks. India can also utilise its inherent advantage as upper riparian to Pakistan as a punitive measure for extraordinary provocation and do a better job in highlighting the plight of Pakistan’s minorities — the Shias, Ahmediyyas, Hindus and Christians — who bear the brunt of crimes perpetrated with the complicity or absence of state machinery.

But most importantly, India must commit to liberalising and growing its economy while incentivsing the rest of the subcontinent to participate in engagement with India. In prime minister Singh’s address to India’s ambassadors and high commissioners, he suggested that the subcontinent had a “shared destiny.” Given Pakistan’s current trajectory and pernicious tendencies, let us hope that theirs is not a destiny we share.

Photo: Eddie C