A Seismic Shift in India’s Pakistan Policy

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The much-hyped National Security Adviser (NSA)-level talks between India and Pakistan scheduled for this week may have collapsed even before they could formally start. But the Modi government managed to convey the message that it has been successful in reshaping the terms of New Delhi’s engagement with Islamabad, perhaps forever. This is a seismic shift in India’s Pakistan policy and should be recognized as such.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif met in Ufa, Russia on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit last month. They issued a joint statement in which they “condemned terrorism in all its forms and agreed to cooperate with each other to eliminate the menace of terrorism from South Asia.” It would have been an ordinary meeting but for the fact that it was the first between the two leaders since May 2014 and came after increased border hostilities in the past few months and India’s cancellation of secretary-level talks last year. When Modi held his first meeting with Sharif in Delhi soon after becoming prime minister in May 2014, the two decided to hold secretary-level talks which were scheduled for August 2014. But those talks were cancelled by India after Pakistan’s engagement with Kashmiri separatists. So after more than ten months, the Modi government’s decision to re-engage Pakistan was seen by some as New Delhi’s “on again, off again” approach towards Pakistan while others hyped it as being a “gamechanger” and a “breakthrough.”

At Ufa, Modi and Sharif agreed to hold a meeting of their top security advisers to discuss terrorism. But there were other steps as well, including meetings of the director generals of India’s Border Security Force and Pakistan Rangers to stabilize the border, release of fishermen in each other’s custody, and a mechanism for facilitating religious tourism. Additionally, Modi accepted Sharif’s invitation to the South Asian regional summit, which is going to be held in Islamabad next year. The trip will not only be Modi’s first visit to Pakistan after coming to power but it would also be the first time an Indian leader would visit Pakistan since Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2004.

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Pakistan’s agreement to expedite the 2008 Mumbai terror attack trial and no specific mention of Kashmir was viewed as a major diplomatic victory for India and a sign of a changing mindset in Pakistan. But the euphoria collapsed within hours as Pakistan went back on a number of its commitments. Sharif’s national security adviser made it clear that more information would be required to resume the trial of Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi, the alleged mastermind behind the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. Lakhvi, operational commander of the now banned organization Laskhar-e-Taiba (LeT), is among seven persons charged with planning and helping carry out the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Much to India’s consternation, he was released from jail in April, after a court order dismissed detention orders issued against him. Islamabad also reiterated that there could not be any dialogue with India unless the issue of Kashmir was on the agenda.

Days before this week’s meeting of the two NSAs, it had seemed that both sides were provoking each other to cancel the talks. Pakistan expected that India would allow its national security adviser Sartaj Aziz to meet with the Kashmiri separatist leaders during his visit to Delhi. And India made it clear that it would not be “appropriate” for Aziz to meet the leaders and briefly detained some of them to buttress its point. And finally, Pakistan decided to call off the talks after the Indian foreign minister reiterated that bilateral talks could not take place if Pakistan’s national security adviser did not drop plans to meet Kashmiri separatist leaders.

Ever since coming to power in May 2014, the Modi government has been gradually reshaping underpinnings of India’s Pakistan policy. It appears to have recognized from the very beginning that a quest for a durable peace with Pakistan is a non-starter. All that matters is the management of a neighbor that is more often than not viewed as a nuisance by Delhi. For India, the real challenge is China which has pledged $46 billion worth of investment in Pakistan and recently blocked India’s move to seek action against Pakistan for release of Lakhvi in the Mumbai attack trial at a meeting of the UN Sanctions Committee.

After years of ceding the initiative to Pakistan, the Modi government wants to dictate the terms for negotiations. It has reached out to the Pakistani civilian government even as it has decided to underline to the Pakistani military the costs of its dangerous escalatory tactics on the border with massive targeted attacks on Pakistani forces along the border. And now with its latest move of drawing clear red lines for Pakistan, it has sent out several signals to various interlocutors. To Pakistan, the message cannot be clearer: There are only two parties involved in the dispute. The separatists leaders of Kashmir have no locus standi in the matter and India retains the levers to marginalize them should the need arise. In one stroke, New Delhi has made separatists hardliners redundant and Pakistan will find its old tactic of wooing the separatists will no longer pay it any dividends.

The Modi government has also underscored, for the international community, the Pakistani Army’s continuing primacy in setting the agenda for Islamabad’s India policy. Nawaz Sharif, however well-intentioned, is yet to demonstrate that he can take on the all-powerful military when it comes to India. This was soon evident when border tensions rose soon after last month’s meeting with Modi and even suggestions from the Pakistani Army that it has shot down an Indian drone which later turned out to be Chinese made DJI phantom 3.

At a time when Indian foreign policy horizons are widening and New Delhi is self-confident about its own role in the world, the Modi government has decided to leave it to Pakistan to choose if it wants to engage with India. If Pakistan’s only instrument of choice remains terrorism, then the Indian military is ready to tackle it. Indian diplomacy has more important things to worry about.

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