Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi will have a more direct, robust approach to Pakistan than that adopted by Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee

It was 16 years ago, almost to the day, when India and Pakistan engaged in tit-for-tat nuclear tests. As a new government readies to take power in New Delhi and relations with Islamabad enter another uncertain phase, it would be appropriate to recall the reverberations of that summer of 1998.

Commonality of approach

I was in Islamabad as The Hindu’scorrespondent in the 17 days between the Indian nuclear tests of May 11, 1998, and Pakistan’s retaliatory tests of May 28, 1998. The tension was palpable. The hostility on the streets and in the many press conferences in the interim period was clear and direct. It was only after the Pakistani nuclear test that the tension abated somewhat and one could breathe a sigh of personal relief.

The memory of those tests and their strategic impact may be dimming, but the changes they brought about in India’s global standing were decisive and profound. Leading the change was New Delhi’s enduring strategic waltz with Washington.

There were many missteps along the way, but there’s little doubt that the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had signalled to the world that India was ready to make public the decades-old privately held nuclear option.

In one stroke, the NDA government also altered regional equations, indicating that it had the muscle and intention to counter an already rising China and engage with others toward this end as well.

Pakistan, it may be remembered, was the only country that took very seriously the NDA’s announcement in March 1998 that it would “exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons.” Even the United States had been lulled into a false sense of complacency.

More than a decade and a half later, another non-Congress Prime Minister, most likely the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Narendra Modi, seems set to take power. The chance of a Congress-led coalition is remote, so even if the NDA does not get the numbers, it appears that the region and the world will have to deal with a non-Congress (even if there’s a third front nominee) Prime Minister.

This is important for several reasons. Since 1998, India’s Prime Ministers have been from the old school: in key ways, both Mr. Vajpayee and Dr. Manmohan Singh have displayed considerable commonality of approach.

When, in May 1999, the Pakistanis shot down two Indian MiG aircraft during the Kargil war, the pressure on Mr. Vajpayee to retaliate in kind was intense. One suggestion was a counter-strike on Pakistani air bases. Mercifully, nothing of the kind happened and India and Pakistan, helped by the United States, negotiated an end to the Kargil hostilities.

Fast forward to the November 26, 2008 terror strike on Mumbai. Again, the hawkish community, whose ranks have multiplied on television screens over the years, piled on the pressure. Anything other than striking terrorist camps across the border would be seen as a weak response. Dr. Singh did nothing of the sort.

In 2008, government functionaries told Western interlocutors time and again that India would have no choice but to hit back at terrorist elements in Pakistan if any further attacks took place. Mercifully, Indians were spared any major attacks in the aftermath of Mumbai.

Mr. Vajpayee in Kargil and Dr. Singh in Mumbai demonstrated a strategic restraint that was evident to all. At the cost of being called “weak,” the two leaders projected to the world at large that India was willing to take a “longer view” of the obvious threats that it faced.

Given that it’s extremely difficult to identify terrorist bases, and the fact that Pakistan’s tolerance threshold to any Indian action is a near-permanent zero, any such action by Delhi would have certainly led to a dangerous war with Islamabad.

Both Prime Ministers exhibited the “longer view” in the face of extreme provocation. They extended the hand of peace to Pakistan where other leaders would have withdrawn it; both also faced intense criticism for keeping the door open to Islamabad.

At another juncture, in another context, Indira Gandhi also demonstrated why India did not and could not “fix Pakistan” once and for all and “resolve” the Kashmir issue.

In his insightful book, “1971 – A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh,” Srinath Raghavan brings out in dramatic detail the intense pressure that India was under, from allies and foes alike, as it prosecuted the 1971 war. Not just the United States, but the Soviet Union, too, was pressing India hard to end the war.

“Mrs. Gandhi, however, believed that a punitive settlement would only prepare the ground for further conflict with Pakistan. Such a settlement would not only stoke the revanchist tendencies in Pakistan but also destabilize its prospects for a democracy,” Mr. Raghavan wrote.

“Had India rammed through a final settlement on Kashmir [in 1972], it is quite likely that the Pakistan army would have deposed Bhutto even earlier than it did. The Simla accord gave Bhutto an opportunity to introduce a new constitution in 1973 — a constitution for all the tribulation visited upon it remains a beacon of hope for Pakistani democrats,” he added.

I recount this only to point out that the realm of possibility, in hindsight, differs greatly with the parameters of opportunity in a situation that is often defined by the clout and play of other powers.

A generational shift

After May 16, a generational shift, a change of gears in the type of Indian leader who will occupy the Prime Minister’s office in South Block, is on the cards.

Both Mr. Modi (and Rahul Gandhi, howsoever remote his chances) will have a more direct, robust approach to Pakistan than that adopted by Dr. Singh and Mr. Vajpayee. The “longer view” is likely to be missing in both the leaders.

India’s is a difficult patch of geography. This complicated neighbourhood needs engagement, dialogue and understanding to ensure that peace and tranquility is maintained.

Despite raising hopes, both Mr. Vajpayee and Dr. Singh failed to deliver on the many promises of a better relationship with Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf and Nawaz Sharif .

It’s unlikely that Dr. Singh’s successor will fare much better.

amit.b@thehindu.co.in

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