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Monday, October 26, 2020

Play the long game

Modi government should maintain the pressure on Pakistan and its PM

Written by Tilak Devasher | Updated: May 31, 2019 2:00:45 am
pm modi, narendra modi, imran khan, imran khan congratulates pm modi, india pakistan, india pakistan tension, india pakistan relations, india pakistan bilateral talks, election news, lok sabha elections 2019 Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan. (File)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new government has begun its second term well by continuing its policy towards Pakistan — “terror and talks can’t go together”. The response to the Pakistan prime minister’s congratulatory tweet and telephone call after the electoral victory was formal and correct. This has been followed up by not extending an invitation to Imran Khan to attend PM Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. As it settles into its second term, the government could consider the following factors while determining possible approaches towards Pakistan.

Imran Khan should have more than four years to go as PM provided, of course, he stays on the right side of the army. Pakistan’s economy is on the brink, with the rupee in free fall, mounting deficits, plummeting foreign reserves and a mountain of debt re-payments. Not surprisingly, the IMF has been insisting on tough conditions before it provides Pakistan a $6 billion bail-out package. Then there is pressure from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) for Pakistan to get its anti-terrorism financing law and practices in line with the international community or face black-listing. To top it all, relations with the US are at a low despite Pakistan’s role in the US’s exit strategy from Afghanistan. The one silver lining is, of course, the “all-weather” friendship with China, notwithstanding the Masood Azhar listing in the 1267 committee of the UN.

As against these short-term and immediate factors, India would also need to consider some long-term issues. Key among these are that the Pakistan Army continues to call the shots on security and foreign policy, especially with regard to India. Its animosity towards India will not change in the short to medium-term and India will continue to be projected as an existential threat. The army will not relent on fomenting terrorism in an attempt to seize Kashmir. It would, therefore, not jettison the jihadis despite international pressure.

Another element to consider is Imran Khan’s personality. Despite being beholden to the army for survival, he is the face of the current phase of Pakistan’s democracy and his predilections have to be factored in. Four strands need to be noted: First, he has a strong belief in establishing an Islamic welfare state. Second, he is prone to making announcements without due deliberations/consultations, leading to frequent ‘U’ turns. Third, like all fast bowlers, he is quickly provoked and responds in anger, straying from the script. Fourth, he is media savvy, articulate and can make out-of-the-box suggestions.

During the sidelines of any meeting at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in June or elsewhere, the Indian government could follow up on its initial response by continuing to be formal and correct with a hint of being enigmatic. The stress could be that India, despite taking the initiative in the past, has been met with disappointment and duplicity. Therefore, only small steps can be taken towards normalisation.

To break the ice, New Delhi could adopt a transactional approach where Pakistan is asked to demonstrate good faith through a slew of measures, like allowing land transit to Afghanistan. Imran Khan had himself talked about regional trade when elected. This would test the army’s sincerity in wanting better relations and allowing PM Khan the space to deal with India. Another issue is the speedy trial of the Mumbai accused, severely restricting the activities of terrorists like Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar as also curbing terrorism directed at India.

These good-faith measures could be finalised, if necessary, through restarting the back-channel with a designated Pakistani representative. A decision on talks at the official level to discuss substantive issues, especially terrorism, could be taken after gauging Pakistan’s sincerity. In the meanwhile, formal meetings at multilateral fora could continue as photo-ops. Normalisation of relations should be treated as a distant objective, desirable but not essential

Given the situation that it is in, Pakistan needs time to resolve its internal problems and contradictions. Just announcing that talks are to be held with India would ease one major element of its problems — international pressure. This is something that India need not facilitate.

Devasher is author of ‘Pakistan: Courting the Abyss’ and ‘Pakistan: At the Helm’. He is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, and currently member, National Security Advisory Board

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