Dealing with Pakistan is one of the most formidable challenges that has confronted Indian administrations over the last 30 years. For the governments led by both Atal Behari Vajpayee and his successor Manmohan Singh, relations with Pakistan were the most insoluble conundrum they encountered.
It was expected that the current National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by Narendra Modi would employ a more muscular strategy in its relations with Pakistan. While in opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which leads the NDA, always insisted that terror and talks cannot go together.
The participation of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in May 2014 allowed for some cautious optimism. However, it did not take long for relations to come crashing down. Foreign secretary-level talks scheduled for August that year were called off at the last moment because of a meeting between Hurriyat leaders and Pakistan’s high commissioner in Delhi.
Since then it has been a rollercoaster ride for the two countries. A meeting in the middle of last year between Modi and Sharif in Ufa, Russia was productive but the backlash was so strong that a planned meeting of the two countries’ national security advisors (NSAs) could not go ahead. A short interaction between Modi and Sharif in Paris led to hurriedly arranged parleys between the NSAs and foreign secretaries in Bangkok on December 6, 2015. This paved the way for a visit by Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Islamabad to take part in the Heart of Asia Conference on Afghanistan. At a meeting with Sharif and Swaraj’s Pakistani counterpart Sartaj Aziz it was decided to launch a ‘‘comprehensive bilateral dialogue’’ between the two countries.
2015 ended with an impromptu, goodwill stopover by Modi in Lahore on his way back from Kabul, which produced a two-hour tête-à-tête with Sharif. It was decided that the two foreign secretaries would meet in Islamabad on January 15 to discuss the modalities for further deliberations. Even before Modi had taken off from Lahore, analysts were predicting a terrorist strike that would attempt to derail the new found bonhomie.
They were right. Six terrorists from Jaish-e-Mohammad held security forces at Pathankot Air Force Station at bay for three days.
While Modi’s unexpected visit to Lahore was welcomed by most political parties in India, with the exception of Congress, the terrorist attack was roundly condemned by all, several of who charged that the government was clueless in dealing with Pakistan and had adopted a flip-flop approach ever since it came to power.
Pakistan’s government, army and ISI severely condemned the attack. Nonetheless, Indian and international experts have declared that the attack bears the unmistakable imprint of ISI and groups like JeM that have received support from ISI for operations against India.
Islamabad has stated that it will act on the basis of evidence provided by India. It can only be hoped that Pakistan will not term the evidence provided as ‘‘inadequate’’ as it had done in the case of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks which, according to Indian sources, was more than sufficient to nail the handlers in Pakistan.
New Delhi is again faced with the dilemma of coming up with a suitable strategy to deal with Pakistan.
India will need to finesse several strands from among the approaches that it has pursued in the past. First, there should be no suspension of talks between the two countries. The on again-off again approach regarding talks has not worked and should end. In fact, talks should be used to force the Pakistani establishment to take action against the perpetrators of such attacks. All evidence should be shared with Pakistan, as also with India’s international partners to pressure Pakistan to stop abetting terrorist actions against India.
All acts of terrorism, together with incursions across the Line of Control or International Border and ceasefire violations by elements based in Pakistan should attract a robust response in a place and at a time of India’s choosing. Only when India is able to inflict pain on the Pakistani establishment, including its army and intelligence agencies, for terrorist actions will there be a rethink on efficacy of such actions.
In addition, India needs to actively and forcefully pursue its policy of reaching out to its major partners, including the U.S., Russia, China, Japan, Europe, and Iran, asking them to pressure Pakistan to keep its terrorist groups in check so that they don’t launch operations against India.
In the meantime, India needs to focus on its own economic development and enhance its overall national strength, including its military prowess and infrastructure. This will ensure that it can respond effectively to attacks from Pakistan
To prevail, India will need a multipronged, nimble-footed approach. It will need to ensure that its foreign policy is not held hostage by its difficult relations with Pakistan. Steps taken by the government recently have been in the right direction. They need to be pursued with vigor and single-minded determination.
Ashok Sajjanhar is a career diplomat who has served as Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia, as also as Secretary/Principal Executive Officer of the National Foundation for Communal Harmony, an autonomous organization with the Ministry of Home Affairs. He has held several significant positions in Indian embassies in Washington, Moscow, Brussels, Geneva, Bangkok, Tehran and Dhaka.