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Why Modi's Pakistan dilemma will not end

Bharat Bhushan | Updated on: 30 July 2015, 22:59 IST

The policy

  • Modi\'s Pak policy has been inconsistent and confusing
  • Its main thrust seems to be to remove obstacles for rapid economic growth
  • Foreign investors cannot be drawn to India in a terror-filled atmosphere

The roadblocks

  • Pak army will never accept ring-fencing, which is why cross-border firing has intensified
  • Pak has powerful international backers like China, Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries
  • Even the US has been unable to contain it, despite Pak harbouring Osama bin Laden

More in the story

  • India has no fidayeen or non-state actors to use as foreign policy instruments
  • Surgical strikes will have escalatory consequences
  • Democratic India\'s compulsions drive it to seek peace with Pakistan

Dealing with Pakistan has never been easy for any Indian Prime Minister. Narendra Modi is no exception. His singular foreign policy failure is Pakistan.

This is not only the result of terrorism originating in Pakistan, the vexed Kashmir issue or the other anti-India misadventures of Pakistan. There are structural reasons for it.

Removing hurdles to growth

Modi's Pakistan policy in the last one year has been inconsistent and often confusing. Some see its main thrust as simply removing obstacles to India's rapid economic growth.

Investment and growth need a peaceful environment, which terrorism and threat of war destroy.

Pakistan is, in itself, not an economically important country for India. It is neither a large market nor a source of investment. Its role as trade bridge to Central and West Asia is over-projected.

However, Pakistan's beggar-thy-neighbour approach targets India's efforts of ensuring rapid economic progress.

If Pakistan could be contained, India could go ahead with forging closer economic ties with the big markets of the world and countries which are potential sources of investment.

Hence, the argument goes, Modi's aim is a limited engagement with Pakistan, to curtail its disruptive role and nuisance value.

Pak army's resistance

But since such attempts to ring-fence Pakistan will reduce the importance of the Pakistan Army, such a policy will never be acceptable to it.

We can see evidence of this in the sudden increase in cross-border firing in Jammu and Kashmir, immediately following attempts by Nawaz Sharif and Modi to restart the process of normalising ties after their meeting in Russia. The subsequent terror attacks in Gurdaspur were also prompted by this.

These unprovoked actions are clear signals from the Pakistan Army that the engagement with Pakistan cannot only be on Modi's terms.

India will also face problems in trying to ring-fence Pakistan because it has very powerful international backers and allies.

China is an all-weather friend and successfully uses Pakistan to contain India. But Washington also continues to patronise it, despite burgeoning ties with India on the one hand and Pakistan's double-dealing on the other.

Then there are other powerful countries to contend with, like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries and the United Arab Emirates, which stand behind Pakistan.

Even within South Asia, smaller countries see maintaining links with Pakistan as a way to balance Indian influence in the region.

India, therefore, cannot look for help to contain Pakistan, either from the region or from beyond it.

The Pak-US equation

Talk of ring-fencing is, therefore, largely wishful thinking; even the US is unable to do this.

This is despite the fact that Pakistan has been instrumental in the killing of US troops by supporting the Haqqani group and the Afghan Taliban. It has also taken defiant steps on drone strikes and stopped NATO supplies to Afghanistan; it has successfully sheltered Osama Bin Laden, and even allows Hafiz Saeed to move around freely in public despite a US bounty on his head.

Pakistan has sized up the Americans quite well and knows exactly how much room for manoeuvre it enjoys.

Possessing nuclear weapons also gives Pakistan international heft. While an Iran, supposedly on the verge of going nuclear, is kicked around and sanctioned, a nuclear Pakistan is virtually favoured by the international community.

The international community has developed collective amnesia about Pakistan's role as the nursery of terrorism, even if they have suffered as a consequence. World powers seem bent on saving Pakistan, fearing what might happen to Pakistan's nuclear weapons if it were to fail as a State.

Other structural reasons

Besides lacking international support, there are also other proximate structural reasons for India's Pakistan policy failure.

Pakistan has had an upper hand vis-a-vis India in terms of having a large number of so-called non-state actors, which it uses to further its foreign policy goals. India has no fidayeen, who are outside the State system, but can still be used as instruments to further the State's interests abroad.

This asymmetry will continue even though some of the terrorists that Pakistan created have turned against their creator.

Right-wing strategic thinkers and policy-makers have often openly prodded the government to opt for surgical strikes at terrorist camps in Pakistan.

However, there is also a fear of the consequences. There is no way of effectively controlling the escalatory processes that might be triggered by such strikes.

If Pakistan could be contained, India could go ahead with forging closer economic ties with big markets

Even if India decided to use a strategy of limited military action, the international opprobrium would be difficult to deal with. The international community will not keep quiet in a confrontation between two nuclear nations with historical animosity towards each other. There would be immense pressure on India to back off.

Any military confrontation with Pakistan will also be a setback to India's economic agenda, as international investment will dry up. Unlike Pakistan, India is not a client of big powers that they would prop up its economy.

If India wants 8 to 9% annual economic growth, it must provide a peaceful environment to the investors.

India's compulsions

For all these reasons, not only Modi, but even previous governments have found it difficult to deal with Pakistan. India's own compulsions force it to seek peace with it. However, there is no 'give' on Pakistan's part to India's overtures.

Despite the fact that ordinary Pakistanis overwhelmingly want peace with India, the language of the Pakistani establishment does not change and its anti-India belligerence continues.

Modi, therefore, faces the same quandary as his predecessors and he blows hot and cold on Pakistan. Although he had promised a robust policy towards Pakistan, he will not been able to deliver on it for the reasons mentioned. He will continue to look for opportunities for a dialogue.

Modi's choices are not going to be easy - because there will always be arguments for taking aggressive action against Pakistan, as well as for resuming the composite dialogue.

In a contentious and continuous democracy, there are no magic wands for dealing with difficult neighbours. There will not be one for Modi either.

First published: 30 July 2015, 22:59 IST
Bharat Bhushan @Bharatitis

Editor of Catch News, Bharat has been a hack for 25 years. He has been the founding Editor of Mail Today, Executive Editor of the Hindustan Times, Editor of The Telegraph in Delhi, Editor of the Express News Service, Washington Correspondent of the Indian Express and an Assistant Editor with The Times of India.