Indian Decade

Two Blows to India-Pakistan Ties

The latest terrorist attack on Mumbai and careless comments by an Indian minister may set back ties with Pakistan.

Two new developments could hurt the India-Pakistan dialogue, which was restored barely three months ago after a hiatus of more than two years.

First, the three blasts that rocked Mumbai on July 13 have come just when the dialogue seemed to be headed in the right direction, and barely two weeks before the foreign ministers of both countries were set to meet in Delhi. The timing has prompted sections of the media and strategic community to suggest the attack could have emanated from Pakistan.

As a result of this latest incident, the same old questions about whether India is doing the right thing by even carrying on with the dialogue are bound to come to the fore again – should India have seriously considered an Operation Geronimo-like assault to dismantle terrorist camps in Pakistan? Is peace with Pakistan only a dream? Such questions are sure to put the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government in a tight spot.

Singh’s policy of engaging with Pakistan has already been criticised by members of the ‘strategic enclave,’ who say his quest for peace with the latter is futile. And, in all probability, the appetite for peace with Pakistan will dwindle even further for a number of reasons. First, as in the aftermath of 26/11, some members of the business community have come down heavily against the government for not being serious enough in making India terror free. This is one issue the government can’t afford to ignore. Also, with Uttar Pradesh elections around the corner, the opposition BJP (itself in total disarray) will be happy to resort to jingoism and to play the terrorism card.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The government, meanwhile, isn’t exactly at the peak of its popularity. Indeed, it has been dubbed one of the most corrupt governments in post-independence India (although headed by one of the most honest prime ministers). On top of this, the lacklustre Cabinet reshuffle on July 12 has only worsened things for the UPA, with a tiny minority of members, such as Mani Shankar Aiyar of the Congress Party, calling for an uninterrupted dialogue with Pakistan.

The other development that could hurt engagement between India and Pakistan is the not so judicious reaction of Indian External Affairs Minister SM Krishna to the US scrapping of aid to Pakistan. Krishna showed uncharacteristic alacrity in welcoming this step, telling journalists: ‘With reference to the special circumstances between India and Pakistan, and how India has consistently taken the view that it is not desirable that this region be heavily armed by the United States, which will upset the equilibrium in the region itself, to that extent India welcomes this step.’

Was this the right thing to say, and right now? With this latest engagement just a few months old, couldn’t the aged but dapper Krishna have been more nuanced in his response? If he was really itching to say something and earn US brownie points, he could have been a bit more precise by suggesting that India isn’t averse to aid being granted to Pakistan, but only for development purposes.

While Krishna may have thought his statement would be correctly interpreted by the civilian establishment in Islamabad, he must understand that the civil-military balance is heavily tipped in favour of the latter. And anyway, his comments will have irritated even the civilian leadership, weakening them on all issues, including negotiations with India. While factually Krishna may be spot on, foreign policy doesn’t hinge merely on facts and intentions.

India’s foreign policy mandarins are faced with balancing the twin aims of improving ties with both the United States and Pakistan. It’s not impossible, but it’s a mammoth task for sure.