While the new government’s peacetime posture toward Islamabad may generally remain the same as that of the UPA, the real test of a government’s character in New Delhi will only take place during a crisis with Pakistan

The outgoing United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s Pakistan policy can be summed up as a set of missed opportunities, strategic indecisions and its characteristic inability to walk the talk on crucial national security issues. While the Manmohan Singh government can take pride in the fact that it managed to keep its relationship with Islamabad under boiling point, the reality is that it was neither coherent strategy nor enlightened statesmanship that ensured calm between the two sides: we were very lucky that nothing went out of control. The India-Pakistan peace process from 2004 to early 2008 was indeed the most “successful” in the history of India-Pakistan relations, and yet it achieved nothing substantive. While Dr. Singh did have a vision for India-Pakistan reconciliation, he clearly lacked the political wherewithal to take his vision to its logical conclusion.

Crisis management

What is disturbingly typical of India-Pakistan relations is the absence of a properly thought-out crisis management mechanism. Of the 10 years that the UPA was in power, it had at least six years to put together a politico-military structure with Pakistan to deal with crisis situations. How India-Pakistan crises can quickly escalate — to levels that neither side is desirous of — was witnessed in 2001-02, 2008 (26/11 attacks) and 2013 (stand-off on the Line of Control). Being the status quo power in the region, it is in India’s interest to ensure that a certain level of stability is maintained in its bilateral relationship with Pakistan. However, the UPA government did not find it necessary to establish the necessary military or political structures for crisis avoidance or escalation control. Hope, to put it mildly, that things may not escalate uncontrollably, was the UPA’s national security strategy vis-à-vis Pakistan.

For instance, take the case of ceasefire violations along the LoC. Even though it is widely understood that tensions on the LoC can lead to an India-Pakistan military and diplomatic stand-off, the reality is that there is no ceasefire agreement between the two sides. The so-called 2003 ceasefire agreement is nothing but an “understanding” between the two armies, not a document in black and white detailing the rules, norms, dos and don’ts and standard operating procedures that can preserve peace on the LoC and govern the engagement of the two armies. The UPA came to power the year after the two countries had reached an understanding to have a ceasefire, but in the following 10 years it did nothing to draw up a ceasefire agreement with Pakistan, despite the hundreds of ceasefire violations that occur on the LoC every year. It took 14 long years for the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) of the Indian and Pakistani Armies to decide to hold a meeting to sort out issues when things seemed to go out of control last year.

Missing the Kashmir bus

If failing to create crisis avoidance or crisis prevention structures was an example of inept strategic thinking, the inability to settle the Kashmir conflict with Pakistan, and with the Kashmiris, was indeed a missing out on a clear and present opportunity that the UPA had for at least four years during its first term. Dr. Singh, no doubt, was serious about conflict resolution in Kashmir, as rightly pointed out in the article in The Hindu (“Claiming the four-step formula,” May 15, 2014). However, even a charitable account of Dr. Singh’s Kashmir policy would have to recognise that all his government could achieve in these 10 years have been a few Kashmir-specific Confidence Building Measures (CBM) and a subtle change in the discourse in and on Kashmir. The unique opportunity to settle the dispute once and for all was lost in 2007 when New Delhi developed cold feet on the Kashmir formula arrived at through backchannels even though a majority of the Kashmiri leadership was receptive towards the formula. Dr. Singh acknowledged as much in his press conference in January this year: “I have tried to improve relations with all our neighbours to the best of my ability and on one occasion it appeared that important breakthrough was in sight … Events in Pakistan for example that General Pervez Musharraf (former President) had to make way for a different set up. I think that led to the process not moving further ....”

Dr. Singh could have gone down in the history of modern India for having achieved yet another historic breakthrough (apart from inking the India-U.S. nuclear deal) had he shown the courage to make that trip to Islamabad to finalise the Kashmir deal with Gen. Musharraf in 2007.

Ironically, Dr. Singh’s road map to reach out to the Kashmiris, undoubtedly paved with good intentions, also ran out of steam around the same time. The Prime Minister’s Round Table Conferences on Kashmir during 2006-2007, and the excellent working group reports which came out of that initiative, also did not lead us anywhere. Widespread protests in Kashmir in 2008 and 2010 as well as the killings of unarmed Kashmiris led to the appointment of three interlocutors to find a solution to the conflict in Kashmir. The report was apparently given a burial by the Union Home Ministry and no one has heard of it since.

Dealing with nuclear Pakistan

The UPA government also did precious little to stabilise India’s nuclear relationship with Pakistan. Nuclear dangers may not be apparent in the everyday life of Indians and Pakistanis, but from a strategic point of view, they pose the biggest threat to the survival of the two countries. While the need of the hour was to establish, in consultation with Islamabad, Nuclear Risk Reduction Centres (NRRCs) in both countries — like the Cold War nuclear rivals did albeit towards the end of the Cold War to bring about stable nuclear deterrence in the region — some major nuclear CBMs should have been agreed upon by the two states, at the very least. Not only that there is an insufficient amount of nuclear CBMs between the two sides. What is even more troubling is that the “India-Pakistan Expert level Dialogue on Nuclear Confidence Building Measures” has not even taken place since December 2012.

While the blame for this may not lie with New Delhi alone, what needs to be recognised is that it is more in India’s strategic interest to ensure that there is an ongoing result-driven nuclear dialogue with Pakistan as maintaining a certain ambiguity in its nuclear posture is itself part of Islamabad’s India strategy.

The UPA government’s efforts to improve India-Pakistan trade have also been suboptimal. Both the Zardari and Sharif governments in Pakistan have been keen on increasing trade with India but New Delhi did not see it as a priority and hence trade negotiations between the two sides never rose beyond mundane bureaucratic engagements. While there has been a lot of talk about enhancing India-Pakistan trade in the past one year or so, the reality is that the momentum only exists at the bureaucratic level without any clear political guidance or interest.

On the issue of terrorism, the UPA’s risk-averse engagement with Islamabad has produced contrasting results. On the one hand, there has been a radical reduction in cross-LoC infiltration into India which has subsequently reduced terror incidents in Kashmir. On the other hand, there has hardly been any progress in the prosecution of the perpetrators of 26/11, something that the UPA government repeatedly raised as a bottom line for improving relations with Pakistan. On balance, however, the UPA’s patient approach towards Islamabad on the issue of terrorism may indeed prove to be wise especially given the potential impact of the Afghan drawdown on Kashmir.

What about Sir Creek and Siachen? The Indian and Pakistani interlocutors, especially at the Track-2 level, have long considered these to be low hanging fruits, ready to be plucked. But even on these issues there has been no progress in the 10 years of UPA rule. In a sense, Dr. Singh’s inability to achieve anything substantive with Pakistan was also a result of his decision not to visit Pakistan despite being invited by Islamabad on a number of occasions.

The Modi government’s policy?

Will a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in New Delhi behave differently with Pakistan? While the new government’s peacetime posture toward Islamabad may generally remain the same as that of the UPA, the real test of a government’s character in New Delhi will only take place during a crisis with Pakistan. First of all, the BJP’s articulations on Pakistan have been hawkish while in Opposition. Second, as we have seen in the past, media pressure on the government to act “decisively” during a crisis could be immense. More so, the BJP has for too long been claiming that the UPA regime has not taught Pakistan a lesson for sponsoring terrorism in India and killing Indian soldiers on the LoC. Such a party will have to do exceptionally well to avoid what it has been asking the UPA regime to do — teach Pakistan a lesson! Even if the thinking in New Delhi, while engaging in aggressive rhetoric during a crisis, would be to force Islamabad to back out in a contest of resolve, the reality is that its articulations and postures could potentially govern its crisis behaviour.

Therefore, in order to avoid getting caught in a commitment trap of its own creation, the Modi government will have to create the necessary crisis management structures jointly with Islamabad to begin with.

(Happymon Jacob teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. E-mail: happymon@gmail.com)

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