The history, track record of India-Pakistan relations since 1998 tells us these can improve or collapse equally dramatically, and in such quick succession. It is a bit like the usual old roller-coaster ride, or a long voyage to nowhere in particular in a gas-filled balloon that goes down only to come up with a fresh pumping of the stove. This makes an over-reading policy by looking at any juncture perilous. This is precisely what happened to the fast-growing ranks of the neo-hawk lobby with Narendra Modi's assent to power.
I am still not convinced that Modi had himself become prisoner to his campaign-time, tough government rhetoric, and I say that for two reasons. One, as an observer of Indian politics for so long, I know him to be a wise man, far from being foolhardy. And say that in spite of the fact that I do not necessarily agree with all his policies. Second, is the reality of our globalised world which has larger, more relevant issues to deal with, like Daesh-ISIS/Al Qaeda and has no patience for regional, nation-specific conflicts or distractions.
This draws tight parameters for policies other responsible states can follow. That is why, while trumpeters and bagpipers cheered on and declared a thousand-year war on prime time after the cancellation of foreign secretary level talks on the Hurriyat issue I wasn't willing to accept that we were now going to see a radical shift in South Block.
Some warriors have been going blue in the faces demanding we don't even resume playing cricket with Pakistan unless Lakhvi is hanged, Dawood handed over to us, Hafiz Saeed jailed, Muridke vacuumed out and auctioned to Lahore's builder mafia. Don’t play cricket, lead Pakistan's global sporting boycott for being a terrorist state just as it was used against South Africa for apartheid.
This was a different kind of government in South Block, they said, not more of the old business as usual.
Our prime ministers have now met in Paris, smiled at each other, even filmed talking in whispers as long-separated friends might, inspiring many hilarious Internet memes. Our NSAs have now talked for four hours in Bangkok, assisted by their respective foreign secretaries. Our external affairs minister is visiting Pakistan in the middle of the winter session of parliament where she will give a report on her visit after returning. Resumption of cricket? Is that even so critical to our policy when the short-lived fantasy of "punitive diplomacy" is already ending?
I chose to peg this larger argument on our track record post-1998 with good reason. This is when Atal Bihari Vajpayee's NDA ascended to power, declared India as a nuclear weapons state with Pokharan-2 and immediately followed up with policy "correction" to reposting India as a pacifist, stabilising global influence rather than a hectoring and destabilising local bully. Jaswant Singh led his entirely conciliatory outreach to America and the western powers while he personally took charge of the Pakistan policy. The decision to ride the first bus to Lahore was entirely his own, over the head of even the MEA (Brajesh Mishra was in the loop, of course) and, having got drawn into this - mostly journalistically - I should know what I am talking about.
Vajpayee crafted a tough/soft policy towards Pakistan, uncompromising on Indian security interests, and at the same time, seeking conciliation and lasting peace. He did not escalate the war in Kargil and set up a back-channel with Nawaz Sharif while fighting raged. Later, he invited Musharraf to Agra, held his nerve as talks failed, controlled coercive diplomacy so it did not lead to war and finally signed the Islamabad declaration with Musharraf that ensured more than a decade's peace in Kashmir and even on the LoC. The same policy was continued by Manmohan Singh who made progress with Musharraf on the same script and then did not escalate after 26/11. He was thwarted by his brainless party after Sharm el Sheikh, but that is another story.
Over time, this policy acquired a name: strategic restraint. India benefited from it. Kargil sanctified the LoC as a de facto border which is precisely what India wanted. Op Parakram (post-parliament attack) resulted in Pakistan acquiring its global migraine reputation, pressure to calm things down, Islamabad declaration and a decade of peace broken, post-Musharraf, by 26/11.
Even that restraint forced global community to act, America to jail Headley and cooperate with Indian agencies unprecedentedly against Lashkars and the isolation of Pakistani establishment.
It is a good policy that paid dividends and will continue to do so. I also consider it the greatest legacy of Vajpayee's six years. It not only survived the UPA decade, it became stronger. The Modi government too didn't need to complicate things by changing this fundamentally for the heck of it. Of course there's plenty of room for nuance. Pakistan and the global community now acknowledge that Modi government is temperamentally and in case of another big provocation - for example, if the Gurdaspur gang had succeeded in blowing up that train and massacring the police station staff - strategic restraint can't be taken for granted. But essentially, as handshakes in Paris, Bangkok and now Islamabad remind us, the basic doctrine, talk-talk/fight-fight doesn't change.
Except, in our case it wasn't written by Chairman Mao but by wise man Vajpayee.
(This was first published on the author's Facebook page.)