Think inside the box on Pakistan

India should pursue the means to mitigate threats to its national security emanating from Pakistan, rather than grand rapprochement.

India’s citizenry has rarely delivered as decisive a mandate as it did on May 16, 2014.  Not since the 1984 general elections has a political party managed to secure the 272 seats needed to ensure its majority in the Lok Sabha.  But even as the newly elected government directs its focus at domestic issues, it can scarcely ignore the tumultuous events that are shaping the global order.


In my previous column in Pragati, I outlined what I believe ought to be the next government’s foreign policy priorities.  These include strengthening and expanding India’s strategic partnership with the United States, developing mechanisms to manage China’s ascendance and assertiveness, and encouraging India’s smaller neighbors to engage with India and benefit from its economic growth.  That Pakistan did not feature in any substantive way in that piece was not inadvertent; it was by design.

Quite simply, Pakistan is not a foreign policy priority for India.  India’s two previous prime ministers Manmohan Singh and Atal Behari Vajpayee made attempts at rapprochement with Pakistan that yielded little.  Mr Vajpayee declared in his February 1999 address in Lahore that a “new century and a new millennium knocks on our doors” only to have the Pakistani army knocking on India’s doors in Kargil three months later.  For his part, Dr Singh resolutely pursued chimerical notions of peace with Pakistan when all indications during his tenure were that Pakistan had no intention of reciprocating his gestures.

Just last week, much was made of the BJP’s decision to invite Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif to Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony.  While it is understandable that Mr. Sharif was invited along with the leaders of other SAARC member-states, coverage in the Indian media about the extension of the invitation to Mr Sharif and speculation over whether or not he would accept was over the top.

That an Indian consulate in Afghanistan had been attacked, likely by groups sponsored by the Pakistani army, on May 23rd or that an Indian soldier had been killed by Pakistani shelling at the Line of Control on May 20 did not seem to dampen the ill-deserved enthusiasm with which articles about “new beginnings” and “new hopes” for India-Pakistan peace were being churned out.

India risks falling into the same rut yet again.  There have been far too many attempts at “out of the box” solutions on Pakistan. It is time for the next Indian government to start thinking inside the box. There are more pressing foreign policy matters that demand India’s attention than its western neighbor.  India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) is woefully short-staffed (and by some estimates, is smaller in size than the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi) for critical resources to be diverted in pursuit of overly ambitious peace initiatives with Pakistan.  India’s much-delayed engagement with the democracies of East Asia and a course-correction with the U.S. demand our most immediate attention.  Not Pakistan.

There are good reasons for putting Pakistan on the back-burner.  First, there simply is no reason for India to go out of its way to resolve disputes with Pakistan.  The truth – bitter perhaps to Pakistan – is that the status quo favours India in all areas of contestation.  The Pakistan-sponsored insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir is on its deathbed and India remains in control of two-thirds of the area of dispute.  And despite what the official line in New Delhi may be about J&K, India has no interest in claiming any more territory at this time than it already controls. India’s biggest challenge in J&K is internal reconciliation, not the settlement of a de facto international border with Pakistan.

India has been in commanding control of the heights on the three main passes of Saltoro Ridge, immediately west of Siachen Glacier, for over 30 years.  What settlement then, was the previous Indian government trying to ‘negotiate’ with Pakistan, whose army is nowhere near the area?  There is no case for demilitarising Siachen Glacier or entertaining patently absurd calls for turning it into a “peace park”.  Despite a series of attempts in the 1990s, Pakistan remains militarily incapable of challenging India’s tactical advantage in Siachen.  Whether Pakistan chooses to accept or ignore this reality is Pakistan’s problem, not India’s.

Second, whatever the intentions of the so-called “India-friendly” civilian governments in Pakistan, its military-jihadi complex continues to sponsor and direct acts of terrorism against India. India-focused terror groups continue to recruit and act with impunity from Pakistan.  Masood Azhar, founder of Jaish-e-Mohammad, who receded into the background as a result of US pressure on Pakistan after the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, has now returned to holding public rallies, warning India of “dreaded revenge” for its execution of Afzal Guru.

Hafiz Saeed operates openly in Pakistan while the 26/11 trial in Pakistan is now effectively a thing of farce.  Saeed’s Lashkar-e-Taiba not only continues to launch terror attacks in India, but also targets Indian interests in Afghanistan with the assistance of the Haqqani Network, a group the former US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mullen described as a “veritable arm” of the ISI.  Pakistan’s proclivity to use terrorism against India to further its objectives remains undiminished.  India cannot negotiate with Pakistan until it repudiates terrorism, which is unlikely to happen.

And third, even if one is to assume that Mr Sharif’s intentions are honourable, it remains to be seen what leverage he has over the military on issues relating to India.  Civil-military relations, always on precarious footing in Pakistan, is passing through a particularly sensitive period.  The Musharraf treason trial, initiated by Mr Sharif’s PML-N, has further accentuated fissures between the ruling government and the military establishment.

Civil-military ties are also further strained on the issue of domestic terrorism. Mr Sharif came to power promising peaceful reconciliation with the Tehrik-e-Tailban Pakistan (TTP).  With successive talks between the government’s appointees and the TTP now having failed, the Pakistani army seems set on a military solution that will likely exacerbate tensions with the civilian government.  Nawaz Sharif will be well aware of the consequences of pushing things too far with Pakistan’s army, particularly with regard to India.  The last time he attempted to defy the Pakistani army, he was lucky to find himself with a one-way ticket to Jeddah.

This does not mean, however, that India ought to – or can — entirely ignore Pakistan.  As nuclear neighbours, it is important that India and Pakistan continue to strengthen Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) that promote stable deterrence in the region.  The Manmohan Singh government also initiated a series of measures to promote trade between India and Pakistan.  The new Indian government can continue to build on these initiatives.

Liberalising India’s visa regime to allow Pakistani entrepreneurs, professionals, journalists and artists to travel to India would also be beneficial, even on a non-reciprocal basis.  These pragmatic initiatives can be pursued without India having to commit unnecessary resources in pursuit of grand territorial settlements.

Lastly, while Pakistan is not a foreign policy priority for India, it would be foolish to ignore the national security threat that it presents.  Dealing with such a threat requires a different set of objectives, actors and intended outcomes.  If India is to devote substantial resources towards Pakistan, they are best directed in the pursuit of means to mitigate threats to India’s national security emanating from that country.  Grand rapprochement can wait.

Photo: Sharat Ganapati