Saturday, 27 May 2017

Pathankot to Pakistan: Three questions for Modi

The Pathankot debacle has brought India’s Pak policy in sharper focus. The PM would do well to make haste slowly. The terrorist attack on the Indian Air Force Base in Pathankot in the first week of this year has shocked the country. Seven Indian security personnel including a Lt. Col lost their lives. The attack brought to fore India’s inability to handle a terrorist attack on a fortified base despite specific and actionable intelligence. Ajai Shuklahas already highlighted the ineptitude of the counter-terrorist operation for Business Standard.

The attack came as a bigger shock because it came within days of the audacious Narendra Modi move to drop-in on Nawaz Sharif’s birthday in Lahore. The significance of the photo-op with Nawaz and Modi walking hand-in-hand was not lost on the world. This extraordinary and brave move received widespread approval but with the attack, the Pakistan policy of the Modi government has come under sharper focus. Three significant questions  emerge.

Is there a policy?

From the high of extending an invite to Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony to the low of cancelling foreign secretary level talks over the issue of talking to Hurriyat to talking about composite dialogues to dropping-in on Nawaz’s birthday celebrations, Modi’s Pakistan policy has exhibited signs of bipolarity. Swinging between attempts to come across as a statesman to showing his closest supporters that the talk of being tough on Pakistan before elections was not just rhetoric, Mr Modi’s Pak policy falls between two stools.

With this attack, the current mood in Delhi may not be in favour of continuing the recent overtures. Having botched-up the counter-terrorism operation in spite of having advance intelligence inputs, the general public mood is also unfavourable for the Modi government to continue in the same vein with Pakistan. The politically astute Indian Prime Minister might be tempted to take a harder line with Pakistan. The govt’s spinmasters have tried to convey such an impression by talking about how the Prime Minister was firm with Nawaz on the phone call after Pathankot ops. Memories of Kargil are still fresh in Indian minds when an Indian Prime Minister lowered the guard and India paid the price.

The point is that current environment does not leave much elbow room for Mr Modi to maneuver his way out of the mess while pursuing the current, risky policy with Pakistan. So are we going to see the continuation of a ‘fits and starts’ Pak policy with plenty of U-turns?

Who runs this policy?

This is a unique predicament for the Modi government. Who is in charge of the foreign policy in this government especially with regards to Pakistan? Is it the Prime Minister with his preference for personal chemistry with foreign leaders? Is it the Foreign Minister, who, as Archis Mohan highlighted in a recent column for Business Standard, helped revitalise India-Pakistan relations? Is it run by the professional diplomatic corps headed by Foreign Secretary or is it run by the NSA? Is there an institutional mechanism to put in operation the foreign policy of a sovereign state or will ad-hocism continue to rule?

It might be an advantage if the Indian PM shares a personal rapport with the Pakistani (or any other country’s) counterpart but is it going to be the basis of strategy, especially when dealing with a state like Pakistan, that has demonstrated, over decades, an excellent command over dissembling information about its motives, capabilities and actions (remember denials about Kargil, the Bombay attack or even about the presence of Osama-bin-Laden in Pakistan)? If so, does the PM remember that his Prime Ministership is not permanent, while the Indian state probably is?

The Indian state may or may not have the services of these individuals at a later stage. It is precisely due to this factor that we have institutional mechanisms. Like the dialogues between Home Secretaries of India and Pakistan, now abandoned, since the NSA doubles or rather triples-up as super spy, top diplomat and internal security czar; it mattering little that the NSA is just an advisor to the PM with no executive powers.

Is the Pakistani state separate from the military complex?

After the terror attack in Gurdaspur in July, 2015, the Modi government took great pains to avoid putting the blame on the Pakistani state. Home Minister Rajnath Singh, in a statement in the Parliament, refused to expressly name Pakistan-based terror or Pakistan-sponsored terror. This was a reversal of a long-standing Indian view that did not differentiate – rightly – between the Pakistani State and the Pakistani security establishment.

By taking this line, the Indian government seemed to agree with Pakistan administration, that paints itself as victims of terror rather than promoters of terror, that they have repeatedly been proven to be – like in the case of 26/11 attacks in Bombay. After Pathankot operations, the Pak PM once again reiterated this line when he blamed unknown players for trying to disrupt talks. The Indian administration now finds itself in a fix. Having absolved the Pakistani State yourself, how do you hold Pakistan accountable for terror that emanates from its soil? A sovereign state like Pakistan is not being held accountable for actions that emanate from within its borders. What would it take for India to hold the Pakistani state accountable for these attacks? Perhaps a notarized agreement – in triplicate – between the Pak govt and the terror group is awaited. The Pakistanis have washed their hands of this attack and the Indian state is left holding the bodies of its soldiers who died in peacetime within its borders while defending national assets and people. Will our Pak policy continue to issue character certificates for the Pakistani state while not holding it responsible for such attacks on India?

Long after this administration is forgotten and the incumbent PM would have retired, this disastrous decision to buy Pakistani propaganda and absolve the Pakistani administration will hurt India. Supposedly non-state actors from Pakistan have been legitimised by the short-sightedness of the Modi government.

What India’s Pakistan policy needs is coherence, calmness and vision. It needs astute maneuvering by adroit hands. The PM should have all the advice that he needs but professionals and institutions ought to run the show. The government can start by taking the parliament into confidence. The government has been rescued from the quagmire of India-Pakistan relations a number of times in the last 19 months thanks to the PM’s political capital. That political capital has suffered grave damage after Bihar loss and the Pathankot fiasco. For the sake of his own legacy, and for India’s long term interest, the PM would do well to try and answer these three questions. The sanest advice for him would be to make haste slowly.

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