After the cross-border terrorist attack on the Pathankot IAF base, a huge question mark has been put about the resumption of talks between India and Pakistan. A gleeful Congress is now pontificating that ‘theatrics’ is not a substitute for serious diplomacy — an obvious reference to Prime Minister rendra Modi’s unscheduled stopover at Lahore barely a week back. Turning the screws on Modi further, the Congress has asked why the PM is shying away from describing the terrorists as Pakistanis. Accusing Modi of sycophancy with Pakistan counterpart waz Sharif, the JD(U) has termed him an ‘item boy’ of foreign policy. BJP ally Shiv Se too has opposed talks with Islamabad, saying it had apprehensions that when Modi went to Lahore, Pakistan would ‘backstab India’. However, another BJP ally Shiromani Akali Dal has come out unequivocally in support of talks, pointing out that Punjab being in the direct line of fire, the civilian authorities and civil society in Pakistan must be engaged. As for the BJP, it has mostly stood by its position that resumed dialogue with Pakistan ‘cannot be revoked due to one attack’; that terror will not come down if the two countries do not talk about it.
The two choices before the Modi government are therefore neither easy — to talk or not to talk at all. The earlier BJP-led government at the Centre too faced this dilemma of dialogue or bust when Atal Behari Vajpayee’s bus trip to Lahore was followed by the Kargil incursion. After the 2008 Mumbai carge by Lashkar terrorists, the Manmohan Singh government was said to have mulled over military options like ‘hot pursuit’ across the border to take out LeT camps or begin a limited, conventiol war with the Pak army. After refusing to talk with Islamabad for months, New Delhi softened its stand unexpectedly when in 2009, Manmohan Singh met the then Pakistan PM Yousuf Raza Gilani at Sharm-el-Sheik in Egypt. In the joint declaration signed between the two sides, India was perceived to have compromised its position vis-a-vis the freedom movement in Balochistan, apart from recognising that ‘action on terrorism should not be linked to the composite dialogue process and these should not be bracketed’. This was considered to be a sellout to Pakistan with the BJP and other parties pointing out that the next time a major terrorist strike hits India, Islamabad will simply deny its citizens were involved and insist that New Delhi continue with talks.
The relations between the two neighbours have continued to oscillate between euphoria at any sign of thaw and fury over the latest outrage perpetrated. This prepares the ground for unleashing attacks in India immediately ahead or after peace initiatives or bilateral talks. Experts are once again pointing out that the Pathankot air base attack is a clear message that whether India and Pakistan talk or turn their backs, other stakeholders cannot be ignored and the proxy war against India will be continued. And the biggest stakeholder is the Pakistani military with its iron grip on the country’s foreign and defence policies, which in turn safeguards its huge business empire to the tune of billions of dollars. There may be a civilian government in Pakistan but it continues to be wary and insecure of the military’s clout which in the past never hesitated to clamp down with dictatorial rule. A cold, asymmetric war suits the Pak military and ISI best, bleeding India continuously with ‘thousand cuts’. Indian intelligence agencies have reportedly warned of ISI attempts to back outfits like LeT and JeM to keep the jihadi pot boiling in Kashmir and major Indian cities.
Is it therefore sensible for Prime Minister Modi to engage Islamabad? He should, because even tions at war keep channels for talk open. Rather, strong tions keep their enemies closer than friends, keeping close vigil on both. This is how the US got belligerent Iran to sign a nuclear deal; it is also the reason why Washington kept spying on a friendly country like Germany which invited the fury of Chancellor Angela Merkel. With India lacking the desire if not ability to pursue a sub-conventiol war and impose deterrent costs for cross-border terrorism, its hitherto contrasting stands of dialogue and reconciliation or hostile refusal to talk have not been effective so far. With his party and the RSS as of now backing him to the hilt, Modi has begun a strategic engagement with Islamabad, hopefully a precursor to hard headed talks with realistic expectations. After all, even if state actors in Pakistan are acting as spoilers in the dialogue process, they are also holding their own government and civil society to bloody ransom. So it makes sense for the Modi government to keep talking, at least to know which way the wind is blowing in Pakistan. Defence experts are meanwhile calling for enhanced intelligence and defence capabilities to reply strongly to any misadventure by the ISI and Pakistani army. US president Theodore Roosevelt’s dictum of “Speak softly and carry a big stick” continues to be relevant to this day.