The Pathankot paradigm

Updated - September 20, 2016 10:18 am IST

Published - April 02, 2016 01:12 am IST

How does one make sense of the current state of India-Pakistan relations? Is there an unstated, underlying storyline to the many seemingly chaotic, paradoxical and pointless events and initiatives that appear to constitute the ongoing bilateral engagement process? The first ever visit of a Pakistani joint investigation team (JIT) to the site of a terror attack in India, to investigate the assault on the Pathankot airbase, is indicative of a new-found rhythm in the India-Pakistan relationship. The domestic spaces of both countries have been restive: while India is reeling under a belligerent nationalistic onslaught, Pakistan hasn’t yet recovered from last week’s terror attack in Lahore and the siege of Islamabad by the supporters of a convicted, and hanged, terrorist. Sensationalist media on both sides continue to blame each other’s governments of fomenting trouble, and the “prize catch” of an alleged Indian spy by Pakistani agencies almost took the relationship to the precipice. And yet, the India-Pakistan relationship seems to have pulled through the rough weather.

Out of the Pathankot mess

While the discreet conversations between the two National Security Advisers have established the ground rules for the engagement, the buoyancy generated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Lahore and the personal bond between him and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, seem to have brought about a certain sense of purpose to the bilateral equation. The January terror strike was an “unsurprising” irritant, but the two sides have skilfully managed to navigate the relationship out of the Pathankot mess.

That said, what is becoming abundantly clear is that unlike in the past when New Delhi was keen on a grand reconciliation with Pakistan, what is emerging today is a strategy of minimum engagement and entente cordiale , with focus on practical aspects, and a mutual de-emphasis of politically sensitive issues such as Kashmir. This then means that having personally invested in the rapprochement, though the two Prime Ministers would walk the extra mile to ensure that a certain amount of sanity prevails between the two countries, there is unlikely to be an effort at resolving any of the major issues, be it Kashmir or Siachen.

Having been in government since mid-2014 and dealing with Pakistan ever since, the Bharatiya Janata Party has been forced to abandon its traditional insistence that “terror and talks can’t go together”. The Modi government seems to have realised that talk and terror do, and indeed should, go together: The more the terror, the more should be our engagement with Pakistan. By keeping multiple lines of communication with Pakistan open, and inviting the JIT to Pathankot, the Modi government has just translated this newly, and correctly, learned lesson of pragmatic statecraft into practice.

Terror and talks

In the past, in response to a Pakistan-sponsored terror attack, New Delhi would always lay the blame at Pakistan’s door by charging the latter of either sponsoring the attack or not having done anything to stop it. Post-Pathankot, New Delhi continues to put the onus on Pakistan, but with a difference: it asked Islamabad to join the investigations and help find the perpetrators, which the latter enthusiastically did. This new strategy to deal with Pakistan-based terror, state sponsored or not, has led to a demonstrable change in Pakistan towards Indian concerns and charges.

Consider the following: Pakistan reportedly provided intelligence warning about a possible terror strike in Gujarat by Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) cadres in early March; in mid-February, Pakistan lodged an FIR against unknown persons in the Pathankot terror attack case; and JeM chief Masood Azhar was placed under custody after the airbase attack. Moreover, Mr. Sharif recently said at a rally in Muzaffarabad: “Vajpayee told me that he was stabbed in the back because of Pakistan’s misadventure in Kargil, especially during the process of [the] Lahore Declaration. Vajpayee was right. I would have said the same thing — he was certainly backstabbed [in Kargil].”

Proposals for anti-terror cooperation are not new in the India-Pakistan context. In September 2006, Pervez Musharraf and Manmohan Singh decided to set up an “India-Pakistan anti-terrorism institutional mechanism to identify and implement counter-terrorism initiatives and investigations.” In March 2007 they held the first meeting in Islamabad and “discussed the parameters of the Anti-Terrorism Mechanism and agreed that specific information will be exchanged through the Mechanism for (i) Helping investigations on either side related to terrorist acts and (ii) Prevention of violence and terrorist acts in the two countries.” They also agreed to meet “on a quarterly basis, any information which is required to be conveyed on priority basis would be immediately conveyed through the respective Heads of the Mechanism.” Thanks to bureaucratic resistance, and the lack of political will, the mechanism did not survive beyond four meetings, and was abandoned after the Mumbai attack, having achieved nothing.

The only post-26/11 attempt at intelligence cooperation was Pakistan considering the possibility of sending the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief to India to jointly investigate the Mumbai terror attack. But the visit, of course, never happened. Any new joint initiative to fight terror in the region, therefore, is a welcome, indeed a much needed, one.

However, the Modi government is under a lot of pressure for having allowed the Pakistani JIT to visit Pathankot as, according to critics, it would mean “allowing the perpetrator of terrorism to investigate it”. While it is perhaps not out of place to argue that the Pakistani JIT’s visit may not really lead to any conviction, this still is a major victory for India politically. By sending its JIT to Pathankot, Islamabad has not only admitted that the perpetrators are Pakistani nationals (as opposed to completely denying it) who should be investigated, but also, more importantly, shown willingness to engage in a terror investigation at India’s demand without linking it with the resolution of the larger political issues such as Kashmir (as has been the practice earlier). For once, India-Pakistan dialogue has circumvented the “K” word. Given that New Delhi has always preferred “terrorism” as a single-point agenda of dialogue with Pakistan, it seems to have achieved just that, even though I personally think that non-resolution of political issues can be problematic in the longer run.

The recent spy tale is unlikely to upset this emerging rapprochement. For one, both governments as well as their key interlocutors appreciate full well that spies are a part of statecraft and hence there is no point in going overboard about an alleged Indian spy allegedly getting caught in Pakistan: should we be surprised? We need to learn to deal with these things in a realistic and professional manner. That said, if New Delhi is indeed engaged in fostering something undesirable in Balochistan, for which there doesn’t seem to be much credible evidence, it needs to put an end to it right away: our past association with non-state actors has only harmed us eventually.

Domestic politics and Pakistan

No Indian government can draw a sharp line separating foreign policy and domestic politics when it comes to dealing with Pakistan. Given his traditional stand that “terror and talks can’t go together”, Mr. Modi has become a victim of his own negative rhetoric. As a result, his government’s reasonable Pakistan policy has also become a victim of his past rhetoric and his government’s current nationalist grandstanding. Consequently, the Modi government is miserably failing to sell its Pakistan policy to Indians at large and create a national consensus, something Prime Minister Vajpayee seemed keen on during his years.

Just as its past rhetoric on Pakistan is hampering the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ability to sell its Pakistan strategy at home, it is also becoming evident that the BJP would find it difficult to pursue dialogue with Pakistan while riding high on hyper-nationalism domestically: the pursuit of hyper-nationalism at home and peace-building with Pakistan won’t go together.

Yet another domestic complicating factor for Mr. Modi’s Pakistan policy is the complete lack of political support at home. While the Congress party’s opposition, whose distinguished leader Manmohan Singh had spearheaded India’s most successful dialogue with Pakistan, largely stems from bitterness, the Aam Aadmi Party is clearly eying the right-wing vote bank, with the election in Punjab not too far off. Moreover, in contrast to Pakistan, there is no national consensus in India on building peace with Pakistan. The mainstream Indian media, uneasy with Mr. Modi’s conciliatory approach to Pakistan, is waiting for his “Sharm el-Sheikh moment”, with New Delhi’s strategic community being both critical and cynical.

What the BJP-led government in New Delhi seems to have realised is that using compellence or looking for quick solutions in dealing with Pakistan, and terrorism emanating from there, are both costly and self-defeating. Dealing patiently and incrementally with Pakistan, then, is clearly the optimal strategy. Haven’t, for instance, the Line of Control and the International Border become silent ever since the two sides have begun a fruitful dialogue in December last year?

Happymon Jacob teaches national security and disarmament studies at the School of International Studies, JNU. E-mail:

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