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A Second Modi-Sharif Meet Required to Kickstart Bilateral Talks
By FIRDAUS AHMED
Sun June 08, 2014
The initiative to get Pakistan’s prime minister over to Delhi, with the cover that the invitation was for all SAARC heads along with Mauritius, was Modi’s innovative rolling out of the peace agenda. Modi had in his campaign projected that his foreign policy will be in the tradition of former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.
Vajpayee had a mixed record in handling Pakistan because he was not able to rein in the hardliners in his own administration, leave alone placate the Pakistan army. As a result India was not able to capitulate on his diplomatic initiatives at Lahore, Agra and later at Islamabad. Modi, while in a better position to be accommodationist, may be less inclined to be so and herein lies what can emerge as the internal contradiction in his Pakistan policy.
Modi’s gesture at the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhawan takes India back to the fag-end of the Vajpayee tenure when the aborted expectations from his bus trip to Lahore of five years earlier were revived. In January 2004, Vajpayee had once again gone across to Pakistan, this time for the SAARC summit in Islamabad, to sign an agreement with Musharraf.
he agreement stipulated that Musharraf would rein in terrorism even as India took its concerns on board. This resulted in the composite dialogue, originally mooted while Gujral was in charge, finally taking off that year.
It is well known that the Pakistan army had tripped up both Sharif and Vajpayee by doing a Kargil on India. The lesson learnt in India was that undercutting the Pakistan army was required. This could only be done by bringing home to that army the power imbalance with India and the potential consequences of that for it and Pakistan. Having fought the Kargil war with a caretaker government in place, India set about conveying to Pakistan its advantages that Pakistan’s army had taken as negated in catching up with India through its Chagai nuclear tests. As a result, an intelligence-military driven policy towards Pakistan was put in place.
India tried to set its own house in order in Kashmir all through 2000 with a period of ‘non-initiation of combat operations’. It continued the escalation of the war on the Line of Control that had been extended by the Pakistan army through its unsuccessful gambit at Kargil, by including non-military targets and targeting of non-combatants. The next year it flexed its conventional muscle by a military exercise, Exercise Purna Vijay (Total Victory) that took into account the changed nuclear environment in the subcontinent.
While evidence is understandably thin, the loose ends in the official narratives of the spectacular terror attacks in quick succession in 2001 on the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly and on Parliament have given rise various conspiracy theories. However, the opportunity of mobilisation was used to sweep the Valley floor multiple times of terrorists and to use the crisis peaks in December and May to impress Pakistan that it was playing with fire.
Using heightened American pressure owing to their presence in the region to make this message ring home, India was able to draw down the pressure over the next year 2003 to culminate in the ceasefire on the Line of Comtrol November that year. The Islamabad agreement signified the culmination of the Indian strategy of mellowing down then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf who was also then a realistic interlocutor with power enough to deliver on promises of ceasing terror. Musharraf for his part had US support and a self-image of having stared down India in Operation Parakram. This put both Musharraf and Vajpayee in a favourable position to start a meaningful composite dialogue.
In the event, Manmohan Singh inheriting the process took it forward to a limited extent. Busy with investing politically in the relationship with the US, he did not have the political capital left to also take the Pakistan process any further than it went. With Musharraf departing the scene, he had a ready excuse of lack of a credible interlocutor in Pakistan to trot out for lack of progress. This set the stage for 26/11 that decisively set the clock back.
With uncertainty gripping Pakistan due to the onset of ‘Obama’s war’ – the surge in Afghanistan – and the UPA government going comatose in its second innings, there are two start points for the talks. One is in resumption where the talks not amounting to a composite dialogue let off in 2012 or resuming the composite dialogue. Since the Modi government has followed the preceding government’s line of no talks without legal redress for 26/11 terror handlers in Pakistan, a composite dialogue may not be on the cards.
In the Vajpayee years, India tried to impress Pakistan that its line of pressuring India through proxy war could not work and if persisted with would have negative consequences for Pakistan. Had Vajpayee stayed another term, it may have been possible for India to make the concessions that would have assuaged Pakistan. These would likely have been along the lines such as ‘making borders insignificant’ that Manmohan Singh voiced but could not follow through on.
Modi, modelling himself on Vajpayee, is in a position to take up where Vajpayee left off. Modi has the parliamentary majority, the nationalist credentials, a strong-man image, the need for regional peace to work his economic package and likely US support for such initiative in wake of its departure from Afghanistan. The strategic balance is also somewhat even between the two countries, with Pakistan army believing it has the ‘full spectrum’ deterrence to be able to take India’s hand from a position of relative parity.
However, India would require being wary of the inherent contradictions in its Pakistan strategy. Among the first measures the government has taken is appointment of an intelligence czar, Ajit Doval, as national security adviser and an upping of foreign direct investment in the defence sector. These should not end up heralding a return to the strategy of Vajpayee years in which India had first to flex its muscles and only then, from a position of strength, proceeding for talks.
Since Doval now heads security policy, it may also seek, through intelligence activism, to create a divide in Pakistan, between the military and civilians, between the hardliners and liberals and between the religious extremists and the liberals. This may be good strategy to see off Pakistan finally on its way downhill, but India has been deterred from following through with it thus far owing to believing that it could not itself escape repercussions. If election rhetoric and the BJP’s longstanding position on the Congress weakness on defence is any guide, India may well end up in a replay of the Vajpayee years. Pakistan’s reaction, that can predictably be expected to be military-led, would have uncertain consequences for Modi’s grand strategy of regional peace in order to work his economic agenda.
Modi would require to clarify in his own mind what he seeks. Thereafter, taking the bull by the horns may be required. Pakistan’s emphasis on ‘meaningful’ engagement and not talks for the sake of talks will alone get India’s strategy out of its cul-de-sac. Any warming-up calisthenics between the two security establishments can create facts on the ground with potential to upturn any will for conflict resolution. A good beginning would be for the two foreign secretaries to agree to resume the composite dialogues, instead of merely restarting the rounds of talks. This could be formally announced in the meeting of the two prime ministers when they meet in New York at the United Nations General Assembly.