The proximate reason for the latest phase of uncertainty is Delhi’s abrupt cancellation of foreign secretary talks, which were due to take place in August. Delhi’s scuttling of the dialogue was, however, a manifestation of the aggressive and domineering approach Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has adopted – for now – towards Pakistan.
How should one read this hard-line posture being projected by much of the Indian media and analysts as a significant ‘departure from the past’? Is India’s no-talks posture and belligerent statements by its leaders evidence of a new muscular policy that BJP spokesmen pledged its government would follow? Is this a display of “geopolitical and military manhood”, to quote the author Pankaj Mishra from his recent piece about ‘Modi’s idea of India’?
A common interpretation of the Modi government’s present muscle flexing is that it reflects electoral calculations over upcoming state polls in Indian-held Jammu and Kashmir. Elections are likely to be held in several phases during November-December.
Because the election is a political priority, Modi chose to spend Diwali in Srinagar. His visit prompted a shut down in protest, with anti-India sentiment further reinforced by official mishandling of the recent floods. The Indian media cast Modi’s visit to be as much about electioneering as conveying to Pakistan that Kashmir was “non-negotiable.”
The BJP has made ‘Mission 44-plus’ its campaign strategy in Kashmir. This is aimed at winning a majority in the 87-member assembly. Its party president has declared that his mission is to install the “first ever Hindu chief minister” in Srinagar. Talks with Pakistan at this stage are apparently not seen as helpful to pursue this strategy. In fact, the opposite calculation seems in play: whipping up anti-Pakistani sentiment and tensions on the LoC to consolidate and mobilise the Hindu vote, especially in the Jammu region.
This is why the prevailing view in Islamabad is that no movement on the bilateral front can be expected until the election in Kashmir is over. The BJP’s recent victory in state elections in Maharashtra and Haryana may have further strengthened the Modi government’s belief that a tough posture on Pakistan helps it garner electoral dividends. It may, therefore, have been no coincidence that the escalation in border clashes that began on September 30, peaked on October 6 and then continued till October 15, the day of the two state elections.
But there may be more than tactical political factors behind Modi’s present hard-line posture towards Pakistan. A broader strategy is in evidence, which has several elements and aims. The first has to do with Kashmir itself, and reflects an intention to change the reality in and about Kashmir. Installing a BJP government is, from that perspective, just the first step in a plan to eventually integrate Kashmir into the Indian union.
Sartaj Aziz, adviser on foreign affairs, was explicit on this score when he spoke last week in parliament. The Modi government, he said, was seeking to “swallow” Kashmir by ending its special constitutional status (under article 370 which the BJP manifesto promised to scrap) and dividing it into three parts.
The latter was a reference to a plan for Kashmir’s trifurcation, making Ladakh a union territory and splitting Jammu from the Valley. Trifurcation is part of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) agenda, which the BJP implicitly supports, though not openly. So if the BJP can form a government in Srinagar (however unlikely that may be) that would enable it to move towards realising the trifurcation goal.
From this perspective what appears to be a tactical move – to ‘electorally secure’ the state of Jammu & Kashmir – is designed to accomplish a strategic objective, i.e. ‘fix’ the Kashmir ‘problem’ for once and for all.
That brings up the second element of Modi’s strategy. This is to signal to Pakistan that Kashmir is off the negotiating table. This was the message sent by cancellation of the talks on the flimsy ground that Pakistan’s envoy in Delhi met Kashmiri leaders of the Hurriyat Conference. That this was longstanding practice, to which no previous government including the Vajpayee administration ever objected, was conveniently cast aside, as Delhi sought to set what Indian officials described as “new ground rules” for engagement.
Therefore, the broader Indian strategy in play involves the effort to redefine the rules of engagement with Pakistan entirely on Delhi’s terms, and mount pressure on the LoC and working boundary in a display of coercive diplomacy. Not talking to Pakistan is (mistakenly) seen by Delhi as a form of pressure on Islamabad.
This has also been accompanied by the Modi government’s diplomatic effort to ‘hem in’, if not isolate Pakistan in the region. This is evidenced by Modi’s early neighbourhood outreach and high-level engagement with regional countries (he visited Bhutan and Nepal and met his counterparts from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka at the UN), which deliberately excludes Pakistan.
Pakistan has responded to India’s tough posturing by taking an equally forceful stance. Islamabad has made it clear that taking Kashmir off the bilateral agenda is out of the question. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly and public pronouncements by army chief General Raheel Sharif have reiterated the centrality of Kashmir in Pakistan’s diplomatic engagement with India. In fact Delhi’s latest Kashmir stance has obliged Islamabad to raise the profile of Kashmir in its diplomacy by several notches.
Top Pakistani officials have also rejected any effort to “browbeat” Islamabad into accepting a unilaterally imposed agenda. For example, foreign secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry stated in a recent television interview that setting preconditions for resuming the dialogue was unacceptable to Pakistan. Interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan put it sharply: “peace, yes, hegemony, no”.
Secondly, by writing to the UN secretary general asking for assistance in ending cross-border clashes and promoting a peaceful resolution of Kashmir, Pakistan has underlined the limits of bilateralism (when the other side refuses to talk), and chosen to direct its diplomacy at the international community. This has prompted objections from Indian officials, including its home minister, to Pakistan’s “internationalisation” of Kashmir – a disingenuous response given that India has halted all bilateral dialogue, leaving Pakistan no option but to reach out to the global community.
Third, Pakistan has made it clear that as it is India that suspended the talks, it is for Delhi to reinitiate the dialogue process. In other words, Islamabad is in no mood to seek dialogue if Delhi persists in treating it as some kind of concession or sets preconditions.
Against this fraught backdrop, it is hard to see the upcoming Saarc summit in Nepal on November 24-27 becoming an icebreaker for the strained Pakistan-India relationship. Neither side is seeking any bilateral interaction, just as at the UN GA last month, where the two Prime Ministers did not meet.
In the past, Saarc summits provided an opportunity to break the diplomatic deadlock between the two countries. This happened, for example, in Thimpu in 2010. This led to resumption of the comprehensive dialogue process that had stalled since 2008. This time, however, a very different dynamic is in play, for the reasons described above. It is therefore unlikely that the Kathmandu summit will produce a Thimpu-like outcome.
The key question is whether the Modi government will eventually accept the futility of an approach predicated on coercive diplomacy, which failed to work in the past and is even less likely to succeed in the future.
Prime Minister Sharif’s government wants tension-free, ‘normal’ relations with India. He has gone the extra mile to show that he regards a peaceful neighbourhood to be essential for Pakistan’s economic revival. But his government has also made it abundantly clear in recent weeks that normalisation cannot proceed on the basis of a unilateral agenda or at the expense of Pakistan’s fundamental interests.
The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK