Under its new leadership, India has built some strong diplomatic bridges. But, warns G Parthasarathy, the problematic relationship with Pakistan will remain until key concerns regarding cross-border terrorism are addressed.
Ever since he assumed office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to put his personal stamp on shaping the contours of India’s foreign policy. On the very day he took office, he invited the Heads of Government of neighbouring South Asian (SAARC) countries to his inauguration and has since visited Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Long pending differences with Bangladesh on issues such as the Land Boundary Demarcation have been settled. Sri Lanka has been assured of Indian cooperation to enable it to deal with its vexed ethnic issue. Indian aid for earthquake victims in Nepal was provided liberally and energy cooperation expanded to make Bhutan the most prosperous country in South Asia. India is also fast improving road connectivity and energy cooperation, designed to establish grid connectivity, across its eastern neighbourhood.
In a larger perspective, Mr Modi is seeking to build an architecture which enables India to play a significant role in guaranteeing maritime security and expanding economic cooperation across its entire Indian Ocean neighbourhood. The visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to India has enabled moves to ensure that tensions over the disputed border do not get out of hand, while economic cooperation is being expanded, both bilaterally and through institutions like BRICS and the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank. At the same time, growing Chinese power is to be balanced by expanding relations with Japan, the US, Vietnam, Australia and across ASEAN. Moreover, for the first time, security ties are being expanded with the oil-rich Arab Gulf States, while Iran could well emerge as the hub for connectivity with Afghanistan and Central Asia.
While a serious effort has been made to build bridges with Pakistan, the Modi Government now appears to feel that not much hope can be placed on any significant improvement in relations with India’s western neighbour. Unlike his predecessors, Mr Modi feels that if he is to retain domestic and international credibility, he will have to respond robustly to any terrorist attacks from Pakistani soil, like the attack mounted on Mumbai in November 2008. There is realisation in New Delhi that Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has little or no say in the conduct of relations with India. Mr Sharif could not even succeed in his efforts to promote trade and energy cooperation with India. These efforts were opposed and undermined by his congenitally anti-Indian Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif.
The past year has seen an escalation in cross-border infiltration, facilitated by the Pakistan army, both across the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir and across the international border. Well-armed Pakistani nationals have crossed the frontier to attack border towns. Two of them, from Lashkar-e-Taiba, have been captured, incarcerated and interrogated. The Indian Army and the paramilitary Border Security Force have been authorised to respond in more than ample measure to border incursions. Moreover, India has not hesitated to publicise incidents of cross-border infiltration internationally. Given the potential for escalation, should cross-border attacks continue, Modi has evidently concluded that that there can be no meaningful progress in addressing complex issues with Pakistan, if the atmosphere is vitiated by terrorism from across the border. Moreover, recognising that real power in Pakistan today is wielded by General Raheel Sharif and the military, who alone can deliver results on issues of security and terrorism, India has decided to proceed on a path of having a security oriented dialogue by involving the Pakistan army.
As their paths were due to cross at the Summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Ufa, Russia, Mr Modi proposed that he and Mr Sharif should meet in Ufa to chart a new way forward. They agreed that there would be an early meeting of National Security Advisers to address issues of terrorism. This was to be immediately followed by meetings of the Heads of Paramilitary Organisations deployed on the borders—the Indian Border Security Force and the Pakistan Rangers. Finally, provision was made for meetings between the Heads of Military Operations of both armies, who would discuss the really hard security issues of maintaining peace and tranquillity along the borders.
The extent to which the army controls foreign policy issues in Pakistan became clear when Mr Sharif was subjected to a propaganda barrage on his return from Ufa, alleging that he had ‘surrendered’ to India by agreeing to a dialogue. This brings the issue of the army’s fostering of terrorism across the border centre-stage. The army’s strategy is to shift focus from cross-border terrorism, for which it alone is accountable, and undermine prospects for any progress on issues of terrorism. While India had tried to accommodate such army-led moves in the past, Prime Minster Modi is clear that he will not budge on making Pakistan-sponsored terrorism the focal point on dialogue.
Mr Nawaz Sharif presented a ‘four-point proposal’ in New York to the UN General Assembly last month. He called for measures to formalise and respect a 2003 ceasefire understanding. He did not mention that this ceasefire understanding had been accompanied by a categorical assurance from President Musharraf (which General Musharraf largely observed when in office) that ‘territory under Pakistan’s control would not be used for terrorism against India’. Sharif also sought an agreement that neither side would resort to force in any circumstances. This was seen in New Delhi as a proposal that aimed to give Pakistan the freedom to continue terrorist strikes across India, and tie India’s hands by making it agree not to undertake retribution. There was also a predictable call to ‘demilitarise’ Kashmir, thus giving Pakistan the freedom to achieve what it had failed to achieve militarily in the 1965 conflict and in Kargil in 1999.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj delivered New Delhi’s response two days later. Responding to Sharif’s ‘Four Points’, she bluntly said: ‘We do not need four points, we need just one—give up terrorism and let us sit down and talk.’ She reiterated what the two Prime Ministers had agreed to when they met in Ufa, asserting: ‘Let us hold talks at the level of National Security Advisers on all issues connected to terrorism and an early meeting of our Directors General of Military Operations, to address the situation on the border. If the response is serious and credible, India is prepared to address all outstanding issues through a bilateral dialogue.’ India responded to Pakistan’s call to ‘de-militarise’ Kashmir by asking it to first ‘de-terrorise’ its policies.
New Delhi is in no hurry to resume a dialogue with Pakistan, given the manner in which Mr Nawaz Sharif was unable to implement the proposals he agreed to when he met Mr Modi in Ufa. The Taliban is now mounting attacks across Afghanistan, under its new leader Mullah Mansour Akhtar, who is widely regarded as a longtime asset of Pakistan’s ISI. There is little enthusiasm today in Afghanistan for trusting Pakistan as an honest ‘facilitator’, or for ‘reconciliation’ between the Taliban and the Afghan Government. The attention of Pakistan and the international community is now focused on Pakistan-Afghanistan tensions across the Durand Line. Given these developments, New Delhi will inevitably devote far greater attention to other countries in its Indian Ocean neighbourhood, till there is a more conducive environment in Pakistan for a productive dialogue.