By Sharat Sabharwal
Our troubled relationship with Pakistan has been in free fall since the Uri terror attack a year ago. The 2003 ceasefire has all but collapsed. India lost 82 security personnel to terrorist violence in J&K in 2016 and the number this year has already crossed 50. We have followed an avowedly “muscular” policy in recent years, its essence summed up in six words: “Terror and talks cannot go together”. But what thereafter?
Our national debate on relations with Pakistan centres essentially around the false “dialogue vs no dialogue” binary, which does not address the complexity of the situation or serve our interest.
Pakistan is not a monolith when it comes to India. Their army, its terror proxies and political protégés regard India as an eternal enemy and spike all peace moves. Confrontation with India serves the army’s institutional interest. Therefore, engagement with the “real power centre” in Pakistan, proposed by some, has serious limitations. However, a large body of opinion in Pakistan favours a stable relationship with India. It includes leaders of major political parties, capable of winning power through elections, who realise the utility of a better relationship in undermining the army’s salience, and large sections of business and industry which eye economic opportunities in India. The focus of the people at large, like people everywhere else, is on bread and butter issues.
Therefore, the India relationship was not an issue of even marginal consequence during the elections of 2008 and 2013. Periods of tension, such as the ongoing phase, and jingoistic rhetoric in India, consolidate support for the worldview of the army, seen as the saviour.
Not knowing how to take their dubious Kashmir agenda forward, Pakistan seeks the fig leaf of dialogue on Kashmir to keep the issue alive. When India refuses such dialogue, they go back to their default position of stirring up trouble in the Valley, helped by New Delhi’s failure to win people over there. The Pakistan army has shown no sign of renouncing terror, seen as a low cost option to bleed India.
The eight-track dialogue format used in every phase of structured dialogue since 1997, while offering the face-saver of talks on Kashmir to Pakistan, also addressed India’s need to keep the focus on terror. Improving upon this format would be extremely difficult. Our frustration with dialogue stems from our regarding it as a concession in return for which Pakistan should become a normal state and abnegate terror. This is not going to happen anytime soon because of Pakistan’s internal dynamics. We have to deal with Pakistan as it is and not as we want it to be.
However, dialogue has the potential to promote a lesser, nonetheless important goal from our point of view of managing the relationship so that its violent swings do not distract us from bigger challenges such as economic transformation and an increasingly assertive China, and relative calm and stability prevail along the LoC/international border in the J&K sector. It also facilitates engagement with the segment of opinion in Pakistan that favours a better relationship. In the past, it has helped us in making gains, albeit incrementally, in areas such as trade and people to people contacts that are anathema to Pakistan’s security establishment.
Let’s take a look at some policy options that were intensely debated post-Uri. We have not developed the infrastructure to use fully our own share of water under the Indus Waters Treaty, let alone divert Pakistan’s share as an effective coercive measure. Our priority should be to fully utilise our own share. Bilateral trade is heavily in our favour — Indian exports are of 1.5 to 2 billion dollars per annum and Pak exports of 300-500 million dollars. We surely do not wish to mirror Pakistan’s short-sighted policy of forsaking lucrative trade for political reasons. Think of those whose livelihood depends upon it.
A diplomatic campaign to isolate Pakistan assumes that the international community is unaware of their deep links with terror. All countries know this too well, but act according to their own interests. No other country is going to pull our chestnuts out of fire.
We have to essentially deal with this problem ourselves. The nuclear dimension has constrained use of our conventional military superiority to coerce Pakistan into changing its behaviour. However, our army is capable of giving as good as it gets on the LoC. While using the terror card brazenly, Pakistan’s security establishment forgets that Pakistan too has several faultlines, not confined to Balochistan alone, that can be exploited by others as a deterrent against Pak-sponsored terror.
The above realities do not lend themselves to black and white solutions. Therefore, we need to manage the relationship by combining dialogue with deterrence. Dialogue does not rule out deterrence so long as it is exercised discreetly to send a message to those perpetrating violence and not as a tool of point-scoring and jingoistic media debates. The ongoing political turmoil in Pakistan, which will take time to settle down, rules out a serious attempt to stabilise the relationship for the time being.
In the meanwhile, we should develop a political consensus on a broad policy framework, based on rational and pragmatic approaches, so that the government of the day does not have to look over its shoulder before taking every step and our policy is not held hostage to the most strident voices in our TV studios.
Indian Express, September 20, 2017