By Ashok Malik
About the easiest thing to do in New Delhi is to whip up anger against Pakistan. Not that the neighbouring country helps of course, having allowed itself to become a sanctuary for a whole gamut of terrorist organisations that occasionally make incursions into India, as they did into the Pathankot airbase earlier this month. Nevertheless there is a familiarity to the response in the Indian system: loud primetime debates; overdone political posturing (with those in opposition contradicting positions they may have taken in government and vice versa); a call to suspend talks and take “action”.
In all this, there is an inevitable desire to cater to the lowest common denominator. Television anchors and politicians alike tend to do this, seeking the applause of those in the proverbial front row. In the short run, this is tempting. In the longer term it reflects poorly on the maturity of the practitioner.
It also points to the depressing fact that, despite the passage of years and the election of one government after the other, only cosmetic changes have occurred to the manner in which the Indian polity reacts to a terror attack.
Much of what has been described above has happened in the aftermath of Pathankot. The immediate question is will the foreign secretary level talks, scheduled for mid-January, go ahead? India has linked the talks to a Pakistani crackdown on the Jaish-e-Muhammed, a Deoband-inspired Islamist militia that targets India but has also made some common cause with the Tehreek-eTaliban. As such, unlike the Lashkar-eTaiba, Jaish is not completely loyal to the Pakistani state. Nevertheless it is unlikely that the Pakistani army and Jaish will go to war over India.
A reasonable expectation would be that Pakistan will take some steps against Jaish operatives and take in custody a few second-rung leaders, doing enough to allow the talks to go through. This would appear a logical course, as neither side really wants to call off talks, and for different reasons. For Islamabad, the fact that the BJP-led government has actually reopened the composite dialogue (now called the “comprehensive dialogue”) is an achievement. As for New Delhi, another false start is avoidable.
Frankly, India would have had the luxury of calling off talks – that is, to impose a cost by refusing to speak – if it had already been in a process of sustained engagement in the first place. This has not been the case for the past 18 months, with a course correction being effected only when the national security advisers met in Bangkok on December 6 and then external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj travelled to Islamabad.
If India were to call off talks again, it would go down, in the larger discourse, as one more example of Indian whimsicality. It would leave the international diplomatic community – whose opinion does matter, make no mistake – perplexed.
The current dialogue framework has been arrived at by effort and by fate. It differs from previous models in that it offers a direct channel to the Pakistan army through General Naseer Janjua, the new NSA who has a separate conversation with his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval, on security and terrorism. This track may achieve nothing, but to not give it a chance and reject it so early would be pointless on India’s part.
Of course, such a decision could be spun as one more tactical advance. Even so, a strategy is usually something more than a collection of tactics. On the Pakistan front, the BJP government has shown a consistency of method – and the makings of a strategic approach – only since Bangkok. Neither country can afford to jettison this.
There is a second point. If the Pathankot attack had been neutralised within a few hours and not become a prolonged, televised drama, would India still be wrestling with the issue of calling off or not calling off talks? Probably not. As such, if a repeat of this dilemma is to be prevented, aren’t corrective steps incumbent upon India?
The reference here is not just to the specifics of the Pathankot counterterrorist operation – that is another discussion and others are having it – it is also about the up-and-down and inconsistent messaging, and the fact that the government was not on top of the narrative as the episode unfolded.
A compulsion as it may have appeared at the time, even the decision to postpone border talks with China because of an unrelated attack on a single military installation ended up conveying a much graver situation than warranted. In the period that followed, this only increased – rather than mitigated – the expectations from and pressures on the government.
In the past few months, the Modi government has run an energetic Afghanistan policy, and has had a dialogue with old friends of Pakistan, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, on the dangers of Pakistan-based terrorist groups. These concerns are finding (limited) resonance in China and the US as well, though much needs to be done before theoretical concerns translate into coordinated action. Yet, for all of this to be taken forward, India needs to be seen as open enough to engaging with Pakistan. That is a critical diplomatic ingredient.
Times of India, January 11, 2016