A steady stream of vitriol gushing out of Delhi and Islamabad over the past few weeks has taken an already tense Pakistan-India relationship to a new low.
A year after Narendra Modi’s rhetoric of ‘goli’ rather than ‘boli’ for the dushman, Nawaz Sharif has abandoned his trademark soft speak and used the word ‘dushman’ for India. Any hope of betterment of ties with India generated by his visit to attend Modi’s inauguration is now part of history.
The Pakistan premier has gone on the offensive after reaching the assessment that India wanted to engage Pakistan, if at all, on its (India’s) own terms. This is a blow to those – more on this side of the border – hoping for a resumption of dialogue in some form. In fact so much bitterness has crept into the atmosphere that a dialogue promises a great deal of acrimony and little progress.
Some months ago, the peace lobby liked to believe that the lack of overture from Modi toward Pakistan was due to his preoccupation with domestic issues. The BJP government had yet to find its feet on the ground, it was said. The latest signs are that the Modi team has firmed up its agenda for Pakistan and it is seen from this side as bad enough for Nawaz to lose his sangfroid.
India’s sponsorship of terrorism in Pakistan is nothing new but now it is accompanied by daredevil ownership not seen before. India feels entitled to do that on account of Pakistan’s alleged involvement in terror attacks in India and its inability to punish non-state actors who are supposed to have carried out the Mumbai attacks. India urges Pakistan to act first and talk later. Terrorism would, therefore, not be a subject among others in the dialogue process but has to be eliminated first. The bottom line of this Indian approach would be: forget the dialogue.
To make this message clear to Pakistan, India has abandoned any pretence of civility in interstate relations. Shall we interpret this change of tack as a realisation on the part of India’s present rulers that they simply cannot afford resumption of the dialogue process with Pakistan? If so, using tough language about Pakistan would suit their agenda of portraying us as a threat.
This attitude negates India’s desire to be seen as a self-assured and rising nation eventually destined to become the third global economy after China and the US. On the contrary, it gives the signal of a country suffering to the extent of paranoia vis-a-vis its much smaller neighbour. Certainly not the ways suited to claiming a place on the high table of global diplomacy such as the UN Security Council.
Some Indian observers are of the view that by taking a tough position on Pakistan, in action as well as in rhetoric, Modi aims to cultivate the image of a strongman at home. It also helps him ignore Pakistan externally while avoiding foreign pressures to engage with Pakistan.
It is immaterial to Indian policymakers whether the exercise of browbeating Pakistan bears fruit. They have taken a decision to go beyond the Congress’ policy of cold peace to one of open hostility and threats against Pakistan. This could be the plank Modi wants to ride to his re-election in four years time.
Pakistan does not need to react blow by blow but should develop new tactics accompanied by a suitable narrative. The new normal of Pak-India relations is confrontation below the level of a war. Let us not forget that Indian governments have had a tradition of undertaking expeditions like annexing Hyderabad, occupying Goa, and in latter periods of provoking wars with Pakistan close to electoral periods to gain greater popularity among the voters.
Speaking rationally, an India-Pakistan war should not be imminent but looking at the past, it cannot be ruled out completely. A near-war situation as in 2002 and 2008 is a probability. In both cases, the big powers particularly the US successfully counselled restraint after Pakistan promised a befitting reply. In the wake of 9/11, Washington went much further and nudged Musharraf and Vajpayee to engage in normalisation to ensure among others Pakistan’s cooperation and facilitation for the US mission in Afghanistan.
The ground realities have changed since then. India watches ruefully as the US retreats from Afghanistan while China increases its profile in South and Central Asia. The Indians are concerned about Pakistan and China assuming a greater role in Afghanistan and in regional connectivity to India’s detriment. For Delhi, the situation is worsened by China’s decision to build an economic corridor through Pakistan to open new links to the Arabian Sea and beyond.
There are indications that, while protesting to China over the corridor, India plans to step up its involvement in subverting and destabilising Pakistan. A proxy war is in evidence in Balochistan and Sindh through India’s agents, prompting Pakistani leaders – civil as well as military – to issue tough statements to deal with terrorists on India’s payroll.
Past experience tells us that Pakistan and India, left on their own, can get into messy situations eventually leading to wars. Hindutva followers may believe that today’s India is in a position to teach Pakistan a lesson or two. It is a bit like Pakistanis who had a firm belief in their ability to raise the green flag atop the Red Fort. Both sides need to be cured of the warrior mindset. The low intensity war through non-state actors is bad enough. Anything beyond that would be utterly catastrophic.