For a quarter of a century, India has struggled to negotiate peace with Pakistan under the shadow of nuclear weapons and cross-border terrorism. Limited gains and enormous frustration from that process have begun to compel Delhi to break from the past. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new approach seeks to break out of the many presumed constraints on India’s Pakistan policy by taking more risks than his predecessors. Modi’s willingness to probe the limits of escalation — both horizontal and vertical — marks a new phase in India’s troubled relations with Pakistan.
Over the last two-and-a-half decades, India’s leaders were weighed down by the prospect that any conventional military action against Pakistan’s support to cross-border terror would inevitably escalate to the nuclear level. Delhi was also paralysed by the fear of “internationalising” the Kashmir question and inviting “third party mediation” into India’s disputes with Pakistan. The Clinton Administration’s decision in 1993 to question the legitimacy of Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to India was compounded by Washington’s perception of Kashmir as the world’s most dangerous nuclear flashpoint and its quick interventions to defuse the frequent military crises between India and Pakistan.
A deeply defensive India in the 1990s believed negotiations with Pakistan were necessary to resolve the impasse in Kashmir. The governments of HD Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral (1996-98) put Kashmir back on the negotiating table with Pakistan. After the Shimla Agreement of 1972, Delhi saw itself under no compulsion to negotiate on Kashmir. Gujral’s successor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, after multiple military crises, negotiated the terms of a peace process with General Pervez Musharraf that called for a resolution of the Kashmir dispute in a violence-free atmosphere. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ran with this baton and came close to resolving the disputes in Siachen and Sir Creek, negotiated an agreement on Kashmir, expanded economic engagement and people to people contact during 2004-06.
Musharraf’s decline and fall during 2007-08, his successor, General Ashfaq Kayani’s, reluctance to confirm the agreements reached under Musharraf, and the 26/11 terror attack on Mumbai dealt a body blow to the peace process. The attempts to revive the peace process during UPA 2 made some progress, for example on trade normalisation, but could not be consummated. Few political leaders in India have been more vocal in their criticism of the previous governments’ Pakistan policy than Modi. He had come to office with the determination to alter the course. Some of his steps, such as inviting PM Sharif to join his swearing-in in May 2014 and landing in Lahore on short notice in December 2015, showcased Modi’s capacity for positive diplomatic gestures. The PM’s decision to call off talks with Pakistan in August 2014 and intensify artillery shelling across the LoC underlined his readiness to confront.
If Modi’s attempts to find a new negotiating room with Pakistan had largely been fruitless, the explosion of violence in Srinagar valley this summer may have convinced Delhi that there is little prospect for productive engagement with Pakistan in the near term. The PM’s response since the summer has been to bring Balochistan, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan into the political contestation with Islamabad. Delhi has also seized the opportunity to deepen strategic collaboration with Afghanistan. If these are part of Modi’s horizontal escalation, Delhi has also begun to explore the vertical dimension: Signaling the will to intensify cross-border covert operations against Pakistan and consider the prospects for a full blown military confrontation.
Underlying all this is the bet that Delhi can afford to escalate the confrontation — both horizontally and vertically. Many in India and the world have cautioned against the costs of such escalation. Modi, however, has a good appetite for risks. Unlike the Congress party, which played safe on both war and peace with Pakistan, Modi has taken a series of risks with Pakistan. Many view his latest gamble of courting escalation in the confrontation with Pakistan as reckless. But it is not without some calculation.
That India is much better placed in the world today than in the 1990s gives Modi greater confidence that he can manage the diplomatic fall-out from an escalation. As one of the fast-growing economies with significantly improved relations with the great powers, Delhi now has less reason than before to fear that the world will breathe down its neck in the event of a confrontation with Pakistan.
Meanwhile, the world’s patience with Pakistan’s support for terror has worn thin. After the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is little enthusiasm in the US and the West for fixing the world’s problems. Thanks to George Bush and Barack Obama, Washington has learnt to control its Kashmir itch. Pakistan’s supporters in the Muslim world, too, are deeply divided today and focused on their own internal and regional conflicts.
The real problems for Modi’s strategy of escalation are not external, but internal. The continuing turbulence in Kashmir and domestic constituencies demanding extreme measures could easily derail the PM’s calculation of risk and reward in the confrontation with Pakistan. Bringing a measure of calm and renewing political processes in Srinagar to blunt Pakistan’s political leverages in Kashmir is critical for the PM. So is the need to lead and shape the domestic debate on Pakistan rather than be hustled by it into actions that it does not want to take.
Modi’s stronger political standing at home, changed international circumstances, and India’s new diplomatic leverage abroad do give him some room to explore ways out of the prolonged deadlock with Pakistan. The PM’s high-risk strategy demands total control over escalation through a tight coordination between the political, economic, military and diplomatic instruments and the capacity to cope with inevitable strategic surprises. Whether the PM can exercise full control over the planned escalation or not, the dynamic of the last 25 years between the two countries is unlikely to survive the present crisis.
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