A Clean Break is Needed (III)

A Clean Break is Needed (III)

Part I, Part II

The nascent signs of Kabul and Islamabad edging closer towards security cooperation under American watch have not impressed observers in Delhi, where the attitude is to wait and watch for tangible, definitive signs of a genuine shift in the Pakistani thinking on terrorism. Indeed, terrorism is the litmus test for the Narendra Modi government in moving forward on relations with Pakistan.

Therefore, the progress on India-Pakistan relations will be slow and cautious. For one thing, the India-Pakistan border is under far greater monitoring today and the recent state assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir passed off without cross-border interference by militant groups. The high voter turnout of 65 percent in the J&K election is also raising India’s comfort level that militancy is becoming a residual issue. 

This in turn encourages India to cling on to notions of ‘absolute security’. The Modi government has gone hammer and tong with its demand that Pakistan should unilaterally meet its security expectations first. 

In actuality, though, while the Modi government could be visibly more ‘muscular’ in pressing this demand unlike the previous government led by Manmohan Singh, the Indian policy remains the same. The Manmohan Singh government also had pursued a tough policy toward Pakistan – although wearing velvet gloves. Apart from initiating ‘confidence-building measures’ that strengthened security on the border and facilitated people-to-people contacts, it made no concessions whatsoever to Pakistan despite the latter rolling back cross-border infiltration by militants into J&K through the past decade. 

The terrorist strikes at Mumbai in November 2008 prompted the Manmohan Singh government to virtually pull down the shutter even on the back channel discussions on the Kashmir issue (which had made appreciable progress until then.)

A case can be made that the judicious thing today would be to open a political track to Pakistan, but the Modi government is either unwilling or incapable of doing it. For one thing, the mainstream opinion in India is far from convinced that there can be any genuine change in Pakistani attitudes so long as that country’s military remained in the driving seat on India policies and continued to view the terrorist groups as its ‘strategic assets’ to wage an ‘asymmetrical’ war against India.

Most certainly, the Indian mindset needs to change. That is the bottom line. India and Pakistan are sailing in the same boat. It is about time that India developed a ‘big picture’ that factored in the rapid changes in regional and global politics.

The Pakistani thinking on regional security is showing signs of transforming in a positive direction and it is in India’s interest to encourage the trend. At the end of the day, Pakistan did not seriously attempt to disrupt the polls in J&K. 

One thing India can do is to work with the United States and Afghanistan (and Russia) to encourage Pakistan to move in a positive direction – rather than remaining as a skeptical bystander, or worse still, viewing the Afghan-Pakistan developments in zero-sum terms.

Second, it needs no elaboration that Pakistan’s political economy is seriously mired in a grave domestic crisis that will take time to overcome. Meanwhile, the good thing is that the Pakistani forces will be called upon to concentrate on the Afghan border and on internal security for a foreseeable future. Therefore, Instead of threatening to inflict ‘pain’ on Pakistan, this is a time India could and should act with restraint and understanding. 

Without doubt, the Peshawar school attack is a defining moment. Pakistan cannot afford to carry on as before. Perhaps, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif could be given the benefit of doubt when he insists that Pakistan will no more differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban. 

In immediate terms, Sharif’s handling of the Indian demand for continued detention of Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, operations commander of the Lashkar-e-Taiba who was a key operative in masterminding the Mumbai terrorist strike in November 2008, becomes a test case. It helps matters that the US has tacitly endorsed the Indian demand.

The core issue concerns the India-Pakistan rivalry in Afghanistan. Both are seeking ‘strategic depth’ at the cost of the other, although methods may vary.

This is as good a time as any for India to introspect whether it was the right thing to have done when India plunged into the Afghan civil war and began taking sides in the late 1990s? Hundreds of millions of dollars were squandered away, but of no avail. A clean break is needed. 

The great game is exhilarating but also risks entrapment. Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan are no less legitimate or non-negotiable than India’s in Nepal or Bhutan. Therefore, India should work with a team spirit to stabilize Afghanistan, which is in its vital interests. 

After years of drift, the signs are that the TAPI gas pipeline project (from Turkmenistan to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan) may take off. The US (and Japan) is robustly pushing it. Surely, the TAPI opens new vistas of regional cooperation, which would dovetail with Modi’s development agenda. 

In strategic terms, the TAPI holds the potential to make Pakistan a ‘stakeholder’ in regional security, while the participation of western oil companies in implementing the project will also raise India’s comfort level. The American companies have shown interest in acquiring equity in the project. 

The TAPI provides a much-needed platform for India and Pakistan to harmonize their respective Afghan policies. It meshes well with the efforts to cement Afghan-Pakistan cooperation and stabilize the Afghan situation on the whole. Communication links connecting Central Asia with India via Pakistan are no doubt to India’s advantage.

Equally, the successful conclusion of the state assembly election in J&K recently strengthens India’s hands. It has also been a historic election insofar as Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has emerged as a major player in the J&K politics. In turn, it helps Modi’s hands to negotiate with Pakistan from a position of strength. India has, really speaking, nothing to lose by engaging Pakistan in dialogue. 

But change is hard to bring about, be in our own lives or in the lives of nations. And change is even harder here, considering that the ‘unfinished business of Partition’ is weighing on the Hindu nationalist constituency in India and there are people in India in the second decade of the twenty-first century who still apparently harbor fanciful notions of undoing of the Partition in 1947 and the creation of Pakistan as an independent country. 

The jury is still out whether Modi would rein in these zealots in his own political camp. The signs so far are mixed. The heart of the matter is that with the ascendancy of Hindu nationalism lately, relations with Pakistan are getting inextricably linked to India’s domestic politics. And this is an extremely worrisome development in the regional security scenario. 

Certain key states in the Indian heartland are heading for election in the next 2-year period and the politics of Hindu-Muslim polarization may be found advantageous by the right wing forces to capture power. This is one thing.

Second, there is also the danger that nationalist ideology may come handy as a distraction if the government runs into difficulty in advancing the so-called development agenda. Modern history is full of instances when nationalism took grotesque manifestations in times of economic hardship. 

Indeed, the Indian side cannot be faulted at all for its refusal to suspend disbelief in the Pakistani policies of deploying the terrorist groups as ‘strategic assets’. It is a stance borne out of historical experience.

All that can be said for the present is that if the Afghan-Pakistan cooperation track gains traction and develops momentum in the coming months, it may create positive energy all around and that will, hopefully, rub on India too at some point. But, meanwhile, the danger lies in the ‘non-state actors’ among the terrorist groups staging an attack on India and sending tremors across the entire spectrum of India-Pakistan relationship.