Four months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a high-voltage diplomatic engagement with Pakistan, his promise to “turn the course of history” has led audiences in both countries through bloodshed, scheming, nail-biting suspense, and even the obligatory Punjabi wedding scene, back to that dreary, dust-blown place with which both countries are all too familiar: a place called impasse.
Though Pakistan’s High Commissioner to New Delhi, Abdul Basit, is unlikely to have earned goodwill among professional diplomats by declaring, on Thursday, that the “peace process with India has been suspended”, history may judge he’s owed a debt of gratitude: there’s only so long, after all, that wilted bananas should be allowed to be passed off as fresh fruit salad.
From the outset, what optimists in both countries mistook for signs of life in the India-Pakistan relationship were, in fact, just the illusory paroxysms that occasionally agitate bodies in deep comas.
There are good reasons why these occasional signs of life are celebrated, on the thinnest evidence, by first-class minds in and outside government: after all, the risks built into a hostile relationship between two nuclear-armed neighbours, are enormous
Even a cursory survey of the reality, though, shows that Basit’s appraisal is correct. Leaving aside questions of process, like secretary-level talks, by which the media is often seduced, little has been achieved in since 2001-2002. For all the years of engagement, Pakistan hasn’t reduced jihadist infrastructure directed at India. There has been minimal progress on trade, and none on the Siachen glacier and Sir Creek—let alone Kashmir.
In both India and Pakistan, commentators generally glide over the conditions which brought about last significant progress in bilateral relations—the year on year reduction in violence in Kashmir that began in 2002, and a ceasefire on the Line of Control. It was, of course, a war in 1999, and a near-war in 2001—crises New Delhi could barely afford, and Islamabad most certainly could not.
Little hope exists for further change as long as the structural peculiarities of politics in Pakistan do not change. The Pakistan Army exercises its primacy over state institutions precisely because of a threat from India—and thus has an interest in perpetuating this threat. It needs the support, moreover, of anti-India jihadists to legitimise its campaign against the global jihadists who have challenged its power, hoping to overthrow the state.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, there is little doubt, sees a hostile relationship with India as both economically destructive and an enabler of military primacy—but neither he, nor a successor, will be in a position to call the shots, unless the structure of power in the country radically transforms.
In New Delhi, strategists understand this—but argue that talking makes sense none the less. For one,they argue engagement ensures that the complex elements of Pakistan’s polity—Islamists hostile to the state; politicians seeking to undermine military primacy; a fledgling industrial bourgeoisie seeking regional economic opportunity—do not ally against an existential threat from India.
Then, they argue, it makes eminent sense for India not to subvert its own overarching aim of high growth to be derailed by terrorism—something that is horrific for the lives extinguished in violence, and those they leave behind, but is trivial in its strategic consequences.
For these precise reasons, though, Pakistan’s generals are certain to ensure that any process of India-Pakistan normalisation—as opposed to a mere management of tensions, that could erupt into a crisis that threatens the military itself—goes nowhere. And as long as Pakistan believes New Delhi will not retaliate against terrorism, it will feel free to ratchet up the pain, inflicting severe political costs on governments, and opening up communal faultlines within India’s polity.
This isn’t, of course, a case for war: the only way of dealing with pesky pig loose in the fields isn’t letting loose at it with a shotgun. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, though, needs to realise that the solution to India’s Pakistan conundrum isn’t just doing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh better than Manmohan Singh did.
New Delhi has long needed to go back to the drawing board, and now is as good a time as any.
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