National flags of India and Pakistan. Photo: iStock
National flags of India and Pakistan. Photo: iStock

The India-Pakistan relationship occupies a large space in the Indian imagination. It is infused with emotion and carries the burden of history. For many Indians, including politicians, it intrudes into India’s communal relations, thereby taking it beyond the classic domain of foreign policy and into the realm of India’s domestic politics. Naturally, this also impinges on the electoral considerations of Indian and Pakistani political parties.

India’s political class, which – unlike Pakistan’s vis-a-vis India – takes the final call on the country’s Pakistan policy and strategy, is conscious of the complexities of managing bilateral ties. The political class has always wanted to establish friendly and cooperative relations with Pakistan, and for this purpose has desired that Islamabad discard its negative orientation toward New Delhi.

Pakistan and terrorism

It would largely agree with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remark, made during a media interview on January 1, on the deterrent value of India’s September 2016 “surgical strikes.” Modi said, “It would be a big mistake to think that Pakistan’s conduct will improve because of one military action. It will be a while before Pakistan improves its behavior.” There is no consensus among Indian politicians on the manner to make Pakistan “improve” its behavior.

The political class would endorse Modi’s assertion that India’s willingness to engage in a dialogue on all issues with Pakistan is based on a national approach. The only need is for Pakistani cross-border terrorism to stop. Successive governments, including Modi’s, have articulated the same caveat, only to overlook it periodically.

India’s approach to managing its Pakistan relations has been to combat Pakistani terror in a defensive mode, respond to Pakistani firing across the Line of Control and the International Border in Jammu and Kashmir, maintain diplomatic contacts, address humanitarian issues, and pursue rounds of dialogue until a terrorist act makes it necessary to break it.

Modi has been no different from his predecessors in following this matrix despite Pakistan’s grave provocations. He has largely kept the National Security Advisers channel going and was initially warm in responding to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s positive statements.

The question is, are India’s policies so fixed that no government would like to consider others? And if a government were to be open to fresh thinking, what would it examine first? For this it is essential to turn to history.

The Vajpayee doctrine

In an act of great statesmanship, the late prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee went to the Minar-e-Pakistan monument during his visit to Lahore in February 1999. He inscribed in the visitor’s book, “I have said this before and I say it again: A stable, secure and prosperous Pakistan is in India’s interest. Let no one in Pakistan be in doubt about this.”

Most Pakistanis, certainly the military establishment, did not take these words seriously. That was shown in the Kargil War initiated by the Pakistan Army. Twenty years on it is doubtful if more than handful in Pakistan pay any heed to Vajpayee’s inscription.

The fact is that the Indian political and security classes deeply subscribe to the principle articulated by Vajpayee: that India has a vested interest in Pakistan’s stability. This thought is deeply embedded in Indian thinking even it is seldom articulated. It has grown stronger since Pakistan has acquired nuclear weapons and its society has witnessed increased religiosity. This is one reason that has prevented India from seeking to destabilize Pakistan in response to its continued sponsorship of terrorism since 1990 in this ongoing phase.

Ideological distrust

The view that Indian interests need a stable Pakistan prevails despite the belief, as articulated by Modi, that its establishment will not opt to normalize ties with India any time soon. Indeed, if anything, Indian policymakers believe that Pakistan’s active anti-India stance will continue for the foreseeable future, for it is one of the two pillars that support the country’s ideology, as Hussain Haqqani points out in his outstanding book Reimagining Pakistan: Transforming a Dysfunctional Nuclear State. This ideology is guarded by the Pakistan Army.

A condition precedent to setting out a radically new and aggressive approach toward Pakistan will require an examination of the foundational principle of India’s policy – that the stability of Pakistan is in India’s interest. There is no indication that India’s strategic or political classes will seriously examine this principle, though popular as well as elite patience against Pakistan has worn thin because of terrorism.

There may be advocacy of exploiting some of Pakistan’s numerous fault lines that lie, among other manifestations, in its provincial, ethnic, sectarian and civil-military divides as well as economic stunting, but there is no desire to take concerted steps to use these contradictions to inflict major damage on the country. In this context, it is noteworthy that terrorism is not considered a strategic challenge. It has been reduced to an issue of political management.

A good case, though, can be made that a stable Pakistan is not in India’s interests because of its implacable malignancy and hostility. Hence it would be useful for India to widen and deepen its fault lines. Ironically, this might introduce an element of fresh thinking in Pakistan so that the establishment considers accommodative approaches that seek to entangle India in a web of economic and commercial relationships to blunt its perceived hostility.

All in all though, it is unlikely that Indian policymakers would really probe the validity of the stability premise because that would challenge the ingrained beliefs and reflexes that have prevailed since independence. India’s role in the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971 does not invalidate this assessment.

If Indian policymakers accept the proposition that India has no stake in Pakistan’s stability, an entire range of objectives open up, as do strategic options to achieve them. This would be so notwithstanding Pakistan’s historic policy of shoring up its inherent weakness vis-a-vis India through foreign alliances or partnerships.

Earlier this was witnessed through the US connection; thereafter, through simultaneous US and Chinese patronage; and now the renewed bonding with China, of which the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is both a manifestation and a propellant.

The objectives can range from maintaining continuous and comprehensive pressure on Pakistan or an aggressive approach on select sectors such as the economy. It can be more ambitious to foment serious insurgencies to weaken its national fabric. There are instruments such as the water issue that permit the adoption of consistent strategies to promote these objectives.

Exploiting Pakistan’s fault lines

Pakistan is becoming a seriously water-stressed country. This is primarily on account of the mismanagement of its water resources. However, Pakistan sometimes holds India responsible for seeking to disrupt the flow of waters as provided in the Indus Waters Treaty. The country’s extremist groups especially maintain high-pitched propaganda against India on this matter. The fact is that India has been reticent in exercising its full rights under the treaty and it is only now that a determination has been made to do so.

The Indus Waters Treaty is generous to Pakistan. India’s magnanimity was designed to assuage Pakistan’s fears of running dry because of India blocking water, as it was the upper riparian. It was hoped that the treaty would remove a major cause of hostility, but that hope has been belied.

In such a situation, India could opt to look at the treaty afresh, for its own needs of water is growing. At a time when China is showing scant regard for international law when its interests are directed at the South China Sea, India too can give primacy to its interests.

In any case it is unlikely that Pakistan can invoke the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice, for it is ruled out in such cases between India and Pakistan, as witnessed in the ICJ decision in the Atlantique case. In 1999, Indian fighter jets shot down a Pakistani surveillance aircraft just as the Kargil War was winding up.

The Kashmir imbroglio

Where does the Jammu and Kashmir issue really figure in India-Pakistan ties? It is an integral part of the national narratives of the two countries: Pakistan feels that its national enterprise is incomplete without the Kashmir Valley; for India, it is an essential component of its secular fabric. It is because this is so that makes its resolution difficult. However, it is not impossible to find a resolution by formalizing the territorial status quo.

Pakistan does not seek to do so because the interests of the army as a body corporate would suffer if the Kashmir issue lost its salience in the nation’s thinking. It has enlisted the religious groups in the Kashmir enterprise. They have imparted an Islamic dimension to it. The army also finds the issue useful to attempt to keep India under pressure by at least tying up a large component of its forces.

It is doubtful whether a “resolution” of the Kashmir issue would usher in an era of durable peace between the two countries. Pakistan considers India a hegemonic power and wishes to prevent their inherent disparities from playing out. It will do all it can in this direction.

India has a defensive approach in Kashmir. A change would require a fundamental reorientation toward Pakistan, which is unlikely. What is more so is the resumption of the dialogue after the approaching Indian elections and more of the same ups and downs in relations with Pakistan.

The author is a former diplomat with the Indian Foreign Service and retired as a secretary to the government of India. He has extensive experience dealing with Pakistan and Southeast Asia.

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