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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

India-Pak bonhomie: Can it last?

Since this is the fourth spectacle that Modi’s national security establishment has pulled off, it would be difficult to bet if this is the last one. The first was to get Sharif to attend Modi’s swearing in. Soon thereafter, they cancelled the foreign secretary talks. A year later at Ufa, Russia, the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan outlined a step-by-step approach to begin with a meeting of national security advisers. The very next month, the meeting was called off over whether the agenda would include Kashmir.
The fourth and latest volte-face on India’s part witnessed the two national security advisers meeting in secret in Bangkok to set the stage for the Indian foreign minister’s visit to Islamabad. Clearly then, between now and the prime minister’s visit scheduled for next September for the SAARC summit, the only certainty is uncertainty. Any bets would need to be hedged.
Consequently, it makes only some sense, but not very much, for applauding the latest turn round. The good part of appreciating the move is that it would incentivize the two states to stay the popular course, for yet another departure would prove costly in terms of reputation and felicity for foreign policy. Since this time round the foreign minister has announced renewed engagement under the rubric of ‘comprehensive bilateral dialogue’, it would appear to be more serious, making a turn back more costly.
However, there are two major drivers behind this that might change in the months ahead, leading to the possibility of yet another turn, if not an about turn.
The first one is external: US influence. The influence of the US on India’s Pakistan policy has been there since India asked for its intervention to pull its chestnuts out of the fire during the Kargil War. In the event, the Clinton succeeded spectacularly, setting the stage for the bilateral dialogue between Jaswant Singh and Strobe Talbot that the two succeeding governments took to the logical conclusion in the nuclear deal.
India eased up on Pakistan in the period the US needed Pakistan to prosecute its Afghanistan offensive. In the event of the Taliban bouncing back and the theatre expanding to ‘AfPak’, the US needed pressure on Pakistan. The coincidence of 26/11 enabled India to apply the pressure that then enabled the US to keep Pakistan to the till, including acquiescing to drone strikes on its territory.      
With Obama coming to office with an aim to pull out troops from both Afghanistan and I    raq, the US needed Pakistan all the more. There was even talk of ‘talking to the Taliban’, in this case the ‘good Taliban’. In the post Osama phase of US-Pakistan relations, India-Pakistan relations transited what Sushma Swaraj called the ‘resumed dialogue’. These were essentially talks about talks rather than a resumption of the ‘composite dialogue’ and were soon to collapse in the beheading of Indian soldiers on the Line of Control. The Congress then fast approaching its nadir was unable to look beyond the elections.
This brings one to the second factor: internal politics. Internal politics punches way below its weight in international relations, although it is perhaps the more significant in determining a state’s foreign policy. The Modi wave was such as to make his national security managers believe that they could dictate terms even to Pakistan. With the Pakistani ambassador unwilling to oblige by cancelling his tea with the Hurriyet, foreign secretary level talks about a return to the table were called off.
India upped the ante by selective firing along the Line of Control, replied in kind by a spurt in infiltration by Pakistan. This was useful from the ruling dispensation’s point of view as significant states were going to polls, including J&K. While the gains in J&K were obvious, Delhi and later Bihar showed the diminishing marginal utility of muscle flexing. The politics of polarization that brought dividend in the national elections and elections in Maharashtra and Haryana appear to have run out of steam.
Assam and later West Bengal now face polls. Whereas the politics of polarization has made an early appearance, particularly in Assam, the fact is that both states have significant minority populations that cannot be ignored. Consequently, in the minds’ eye of the right wing political strategists a tough Pakistan policy may require watering down, at least temporarily.
In their thinking, Indian Muslims identify with Pakistan and would be mollified if India were to be seen as chumming up with that state. Fallacious though this is the connection drawn of Indian Muslims with Pakistan is self-evident from the numerous references to both that find mention in the same breath of right wing politicians and propagandists. Memorable on this score are, ‘go to Pakistan’ and ‘celebrations in Pakistan’. 
Clearly, the internal elections timetable appears to be driving the foreign policy agenda of the government. If Mr. Modi is to eventually have a free hand in reshaping India, he requires conquering Raisina Hill, one half of which - its upper house -  is currently not in his kitty. A reverse while on top would expose both Modi and the right wing, setting them back with finality.
Peace with Pakistan is useful in this sense by helping with his economic agenda, since he has come under criticism for promising much and delivering little. He can afford to do without any buffeting that can originate in Pakistan. Keeping Pakistan placated makes sense and any subsequent crisis onset can then be rightly blamed on that side for not keeping up its side of the bargain.
What does such an inside-outside look at India’s Pakistan policy spell for longevity of this phase?
In the immediate term, it is all for the good in that the two military operations heads can meet as per the schedule set at Ufa. This will translate on a tranquil Line of Control. This might well extend into summer since Mr. Modi has accepted the invite to travel to Islamabad for the SAARC summit. Pakistan for its part has promised good behavior so long as talks continue, so infiltration may once again be at ebb.
Yet, Modi in travelling to Islamabad would not like to end up as Vajpayee did with egg on his face, so there would be little let up in militarization. This will ensure that the next crisis will likely be more ‘on the edge’ than was the relatively placid one of 2002. Internal politics will pressure Modi to give a ‘befitting reply’. Since the onus would be on Pakistan, even if this has an economic price, playing to the gallery militarily would compensate.
Pakistan for its part needs a break in order to make the gains its proxy the Taliban appear to be making in Afghanistan. The US also needs Pakistan to keep a check on the Taliban pulling the rug from under its sponsored administration in Afghanistan. The US cannot keep a closer watch since history appears to have speeded up in the Middle East. Once Pakistan has seen off the US, and gains a measure that India is only set to discuss J&K, rather than talk meaningfully, its gloves are liable to be off.
The timeline for the strategic outlook here takes Modi into his second term. By then he would not need to be soft with Pakistan any more, either for the economy’s sake or elections. The reboot of India would be away in right earnest, for which a hostile Pakistan would be preferable to accentuate the internal ‘Other’, India’s minority.
So what we are essentially seeing is a stowing away of the gloves for timely retrieval a few years on. The interim would in any case see twists and turns aplenty, if only because an intelligence head on the Indian side as national security minder and a military man on the other, are both adept at shadow boxing.

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