The limits of coercive diplomacy

PEACE IS AT HAND: In this July 16, 2009 photo Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani greet each other during a bilateral meeting at Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt. Photo: PTI  

The so-called ‘peace overture’ that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made to Pakistan from the Kashmir Valley last week, came almost a year after the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks and New Delhi’s subsequent indefinite halt of the peace process with Islamabad. The major dialogue channels between the two countries — the composite dialogue and the back-channel negotiations — continue to remain closed. Since November 2008, there have only been some underdeveloped and half-hearted attempts towards a thaw in the prevailing icy state of relations between the two countries. There seems to be no way forward.

However, following mounting international pressure and an increasing number of jihadist attacks on its soil, including an audacious assault on the Army’s General Headquarters in Rawalpindi and a series of attacks on police installations in Lahore, Pakistan has urged a resumption of dialogue with India. Dr. Singh’s peace overture has come at a time when there is an urgent need to re-examine India’s policy of ‘no-dialogue’ with Pakistan.

Has it worked?

It is perhaps an opportune time to ask whether the Indian strategy of coercive diplomacy has worked against Pakistan. What has India gained by not talking to Pakistan for 11 months, and what more is India likely to gain if it continues along this path? Do New Delhi’s foreign policy mandarins think India profits strategically by refusing to engage Pakistan in discussion?

Do they assume that India can indefinitely retain the moral high ground it thought it had when it broke off relations with Pakistan last year? They seem to hold this assumption, erroneous though this might be. As a result, New Delhi is not only losing precious time by isolating itself from Pakistan, but is harming its own strategic interests.

India has achieved all it can hope to with its silence; there is nothing more it can reasonably hope to gain by refusing to restart the dialogue process. Pakistan has accepted that the perpetrators of 26/11 came from its territory and has, in principle at least, agreed to prosecute them. India also helped focus the attention of the international community on Pakistan post-26/11. However, New Delhi’s insistence that it will talk to Islamabad only after Jama’at-ud-Da’wah (JuD) chief Hafiz Mohammad Saeed is prosecuted may indeed be demanding too much. India should work with Pakistan to initiate Saeed’s prosecution rather than hounding Islamabad to go it alone: a strategy of pure coercion and compellence with no reasonable payoff is clearly counterproductive.

If New Delhi continues along this route, Pakistan may well up the ante against India (through border incursions, for example) in an attempt to bring India to the negotiating table: states have a tendency to behave irrationally when pushed to the corner. India’s strategy of compellence has never really worked against Pakistan. And it is unlikely to work in the future.


Not only is a ‘no-dialogue’ policy towards Pakistan not useful, it is indeed counterproductive. Consider the following. First of all, the former Pakistan President, Pervez Musharraf, is increasingly becoming a ‘persona non-grata’ among the ruling elites of Pakistan — both civilian and military. There is an emerging tendency among many Pakistani politicians and retired generals who once worked under Gen. Musharraf, to feign ignorance of his statements and actions (especially vis-À-vis India) and to distance themselves from him.

In other words, there is today a clear unwillingness in Pakistan to own the political legacy of its former military dictator. It is now widely recognised that the 2004-2008 peace process — which was seriously considering out-of-the-box solutions to resolve outstanding rifts — not only had the full support of Dr. Singh and Gen. Musharraf but, through its back-channel route, had even prepared a tentative blueprint for peace. More precisely, it is believed that the bilateral back-channel negotiations had taken the peace process on Jammu and Kashmir to a new level. If the new government and the strategic community in Pakistan renege on Gen. Musharraf’s past promises, there will be serious implications for Indo-Pakistan relations, especially with respect to Kashmir.

Therefore, undoing Gen. Musharraf’s legacy will also mean undoing the Indo-Pakistan peace process and all that it may have achieved over time. If this process of demonising and demolishing Gen. Musharraf’s legacy is already under way in Pakistan, then India’s consistent refusal to engage Islamabad will only further contribute to the undoing of the gains of the Indo-Pakistan peace process. In other words, the Indian unwillingness to engage Pakistan will reverse the gains that India had made in recent years in resolving its conflicts with Pakistan.

Another emerging trend in Pakistan is to accuse India of sponsoring terrorism against Pakistan. Today many in the Pakistan establishment are making serious allegations that India supports the Baloch insurgents as well as some Pakistan Taliban groups. While such allegations may not be wholly new, what is perhaps new is the focussed and predetermined manner in which these accusations are being made today and the manner in which this argument is gaining currency within Pakistan’s strategic elite. Although this may be purely for domestic consumption — as the international audience is unlikely to buy this line of argument — a Pakistani population and civil society unfavourably disposed towards India is not something New Delhi should ignore. It will be genuinely counterproductive for Indian interests in the long term.

More so, this shows that there is a perceptible change in Pakistan’s attitude: from being defensive and cornered in the months immediately after 26/11, it is now on the offensive. To some extent this has been a result of India’s overuse of coercive diplomacy, which it continues to indulge in without properly weighing its options in a cost-effective manner. Quite apart from the fact that this approach has degraded relations between the two countries and made Pakistan feel more insecure (which in turn may prompt it to be more belligerent), it has led the international community to regard the two countries as part of the problem rather than as part of the solution. More so, the more time India spends refusing to have a dialogue with Pakistan, the more difficult it will be for the country to start talking if and when it decides to talk.

Status quo bias

New Delhi’s unwise handling of Pakistan is a result of a deep-seated status quo bias that permeates New Delhi’s policy towards Pakistan, terrorism, and even Kashmir which in many ways is the ‘ground zero’ of Indo-Pakistan relations and India’s struggle against terrorism. This status quo bias has manifestly narrowed the Indian government’s understanding and approach to terrorism in the region.

New Delhi sometimes appears to consider terrorism a problem that is unique to India, as though no other country has ever suffered its consequences. It therefore persists with its demand that others (that is, Pakistan) ‘fix’ the problem first before it (the perpetual victim) will discuss other political and security issues.

This head-in-the-sand approach ignores the reality that terrorism is a global/regional problem requiring a global/regional solution. This solution can only be achieved in a cooperative mode and by creating cooperative mechanisms to contain the menace of terror in the region. And India needs to take the lead in this process, however challenging and long-drawn-out it may turn out to be. It is imprudent to attempt to enact unilateral measures to ‘control’ terrorism, precisely because terrorists respect no borders and are by their very nature extremely difficult to control.

A status quo bias may ‘benefit’ the painfully slow-moving Indian political and bureaucratic apparatus, but it is not beneficial for a country that desires to become a great power in an age of fast-changing international politics. To start with, therefore, New Delhi needs to shed its status quo bias and restart the dialogue with Pakistan in its own long-term strategic interests.

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 6:29:51 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/The-limits-of-coercive-diplomacy/article16890124.ece

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