India and Pakistan are back to normal, feeding toxic narratives about the "other". The provocative statement of Indian defence minister Manohar Parrikar that terrorists need to be "neutralised" through terrorists has upped the ante of rhetoric between the two arch-rivals. After the recent unilateral Indian military operation into Myanmar territory, in pursuit of militant groups that attacked the Indian Army, the statements from New Delhi have been extraordinarily aggressive. Indian ministers have sought to display "hot pursuit" in Myanmar as a sign of growing willingness of India to cross borders and hunt down terrorists. An Indian minister went on to suggest that the Myanmar operation has set a new precedent. In response, the Pakistani interior minister, and the former president Pervez Musharraf reminded India that Pakistan wasn’t Myanmar.
Praveen Swami, a highly-informed journalist, advocated the need to increase covert operations against Pakistan. Swami’s policy advice was to “develop covert assets to make acts of terrorism prohibitively costly, to have policing and intelligence systems that will ensure jihadist retaliation has a low probability of success, and to have military means that leaves an adversary in no doubt of swift defeat".
Perverse as it may sound, such rhetoric from New Delhi has validated the loud protests of military commanders in Pakistan. The Pakistani military accused India, and in particular its intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) of instigating terrorism inside Pakistan, with an objective to destabilise the country. Following a monthly meeting of the military high command, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the press wing of the Pakistan military stated that commanders “took serious notice of RAW’s involvement in whipping up terrorism in Pakistan”. Earlier, Pakistan Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif had warned foreign “governments and intelligence agencies” not to destabilise Pakistan by providing support to insurgents in Balochistan.
Two phone calls, first from Washington by US secretary of state John Kerry and the second by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif on the eve of Ramzan somewhat defused the tension. Secretary Kerry, as always, urged both countries to commence constructive engagement. Modi announced that India would release detained Pakistani fishermen on the occasion of Ramzan. However, these firefighting measures cannot be described as "policy".
As I argued earlier, India has no coherent Pakistan policy. From inviting Nawaz Sharif to Modi's swearing in ceremony, and then moving towards aborting the planned resumption of foreign secretary-level talks, while demonstrating bravado at the Line of Control (LoC), and now threatening covert operations inside Pakistan, the Modi government has experimented with a variety of options. None of these have produced the desired results. Even senior Indian politician and former diplomat, Mani Shankar Aiyar has complained about Modi’s dysfunctional Pakistan policy.
The current Indian strategy of a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) minus Pakistan is also a non-starter. Pakistan is the second largest country of the region in terms of economic size and population. It enjoys solid security relations with Sri Lanka, is friends with Nepal and never has the relationship with Afghanistan been better. The Pakistan-China ties are growing deeper and the Pakistan-China Economic Corridor (PCEC) could be a game changer for the links between Central and South Asia. Isolating Pakistan can work as a populist slogan, but is likely to harm Indian interests in the long run.
While visiting Bangladesh, Modi admitted, in effect trumpeted, the role played by India in Pakistan’s dismemberment during 1971. This has ironically validated the claims of the Pakistani military and the dominant national narratives that Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation-state not owing to a nationalist movement, reflective of genuine political grievances, but as a result of Indian conspiracy and direct military intervention. One wonders what message Modi is giving to ordinary Pakistanis, 70 per cent of whom were not even born in 1971. By repeating partisan history lessons he may end up making the bilateral relations even more complicated for the future generations.
The glossy deification of Modi and his "tough" stance by the Indian media hides the short-sightedness of a jingoistic world view. Modi wants India to emerge as a world power with a stake in global affairs, and integral to the world economy. He wants Indians to hold iPads in their hands, but with worn-out old prejudices against Pakistan. How can a restive Western border enable the pursuit of such goals?
One is constrained to question what the difference is between nationalistic drum beating by the Pakistani military and that of Modi’s hyper-Hindu nationalism. In fact, Modi’s blunt team members, substantiate every bit of doctored history taught in Pakistan studies textbooks. With every passing day it appears that Modi arrived as a godsend to the hawks of Pakistan. A prime minister, who took office as a beacon of hope for India and the region, is still locked in the time-prison when it comes to India’s Pakistan question.
It is never too late for constructive engagement, even between enemies.
What could replace the rhetoric? First, India should engage Pakistan in a direct dialogue on issues of bilateral concern and bring all its reservations on the negotiating table. Diplomacy should resume at the earliest. Similarly Pakistan should present the evidence of Indian involvement in the country. A meeting between the two premiers on the sidelines of the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September might lead to some forward movement. Second, some quarters in Pakistan hold that India should share more evidence on Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi and others from the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) to help the Pakistani government and the relevant courts to prosecute Lakhvi. Lakhvi’s case is no different from thousands of other cases pending in Pakistani courts and victims of a slow-moving judicial process. Many in Pakistan have urged the government to ensure prosecution but these voices are drowned by the hardliners as they catch up with the Indian hawks.
Third, the Modi government should not undermine Pakistan's civilian government. Nawaz Sharif put his political capital on risk by travelling to New Delhi and attending the inauguration of Prime Minister Modi. The later developments have given the hawks within the Pakistani establishment an upper hand; and now the propaganda mills are busy convincing the Pakistanis that Nawaz Sharif is interested in normalising ties to augment his mythical "business interests".
Sharif can engage in result-oriented negotiations to resolve lingering disputes, as he is backed by Punjab and if the core issue of Kashmir is on the table the military would not object. Fourth, Track II and Track III engagement needs to be reactivated to prevent another useless and avoidable phase of conflict. The interactions between influential segments of the respective civil societies will lead to managing tensions and proposing substantive dialogue to their respective leaderships.
The jingoism has to be contained as it casts an ominous shadow over the future of millions of children who have no idea what their reckless states are up to. We are already paying for the miscalculations and blunders of the past. One hopes that the regional media outlets would advance public interest instead of regurgitating the imperatives of militaristic nationalism.