Uri was the last straw. The Indian military action across the Line of Control was waiting to happen for many years now. It finally did. The fact is that a “cold war” of sorts has been on between India and Pakistan since November 2008. Pakistan has done little in these past seven years to respond to Indian concerns about terrorism in the region emanating from territories under its control and command. Going forward, the challenge for both countries is to manage a long period of bilateral disengagement.
The last round of purposeful engagement between India and Pakistan was during the first term of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. That ended in 2007 when Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf was besieged within his own country, and was eventually dethroned. Despite the dastardly terror attacks in Mumbai in November 2009, Prime Minister Singh began his second term seeking to revive the engagement with Pakistan. He met Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani twice during the second term. The first time at Sharm-el Sheikh and the second at Thimphu. Neither yielded any results.
After that, all interaction became largely formal and Dr Singh decided he would not travel to Pakistan unless something tangible could be achieved. His foreign policy advisors and many in the media urged him repeatedly to at least make a non-official visit to his place of birth, the village Gah in Pakistan. He refused to do so.
Surprising the nation and the world, Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his term in office reaching out to Pakistan. Once again, in the face of Pakistani intransigence on dealing with cross-border terror attacks and anti-India Islamic extremists in Pakistan, Prime Minister Modi stuck to his out-of-the-box approach and landed in Lahore to spend a chatty day with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. That visit too yielded no result of consequence for India.
For eight long years, and in the face of extreme provocation, Indian political leadership across the ideological divide has tried to mend fences with Pakistan and failed. The attack on Uri brought India’s simmering mood to a boil. Little wonder, then, that every political party has hailed Indian action across the LoC. Prime Minister Modi has initiated a new phase in the bilateral relationship.
Pakistan’s response of denial should not surprise anyone. Especially since it follows the most irresponsible assertion of nuclear blackmail by none other than its defence minister. Some part of Pakistan’s response should be put down to the instinctive bravado and urge for self-preservation of its pampered Punjabi elite. Some part betrays nervousness.
The fact is that India has carefully calibrated its action, deploying diplomacy and coercion at the same time. With the exception of China, Pakistan’s “all-weather” protector, most other countries that matter have implicitly backed India.
What next? It would be foolish for us to imagine that Pakistan would have learnt a lesson from this experience and would mend its ways. It will not. The China-Pakistan axis has become stronger. This fact alone explains Pakistan increasingly behaving like North Korea. The way forward for India is clear. Pakistan has to be treated by India in the same way that South Korea and Japan treat North Korea.
Interestingly, both India and South Korea reached out to their difficult neighbour in the early 1990s with their individual versions of what South Korea called a “sunshine policy”. In India, it was Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao who floated the idea of India making unilateral gestures of friendship towards all her neighbours. This policy was later called the “Gujral Doctrine”, the name being given by Prime Minister I.K. Gujral himself!
Today, both India and South Korea realise that this policy has not yielded the dividends they had hoped for. The military leadership in both countries has become the extended strategic arm of an increasingly assertive China. After all, the nuclear programme of both countries has benefited from Chinese assistance and the economies of both countries are increasingly tethered to that of China.
There are only two differences between North Korea and Pakistan. The latter is an Islamic republic and that makes all the difference in the contemporary Asian strategic context. What partly balances this out is the fact that Pakistan still has an English-speaking, pro-Western elite with social and economic links to the United States and the United Kingdom. However, as Pakistan’s Islamic identity becomes stronger, the influence of her westernised elite is becoming weaker. Even the West is beginning to come to terms with this reality.
What all this means is that normal relations are unlikely to be restored between India and Pakistan in the near future. Pakistan has refused to establish normal trade relations with India, refused to adhere to the trade liberalisation programme of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and has refused to provide transit rights for Indian goods and vehicles seeking access to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Given this hard reality it is only natural that the Indian government has decided to stay away from the SAARC Summit. More than the supportive decision of Afghanistan, the fact that Bangladesh, SAARC’s founder-country, has also decided to stay away from the Islamabad summit this November shows that SAARC has entered a cul de sac.
With trade relations frozen in time, with diplomacy derailed by military-supported terrorism and Pakistan’s increasing resort to nuclear blackmail, a new era of an India-Pakistan Cold War has begun. Of course, there is always the risk of a “hot war” if Pakistan military becomes desperate or Islamic jihadists provoke both countries into direct conflict.
While a “hot war” can still be averted, a “cold war” has already been launched. India will have to devise and pursue the logic of such a Cold War. Its aim can be a more benign one than was the case with the original Cold War, namely to get Pakistan to become a “normal” nation, state and neighbour. However, if Pakistan cannot evolve into normalcy, then the end result of the regional Cold War would be no different from that of the global Cold War — a nuclear weapons power becoming a failed state; imploding economically and politically; indeed, even getting reconstituted in the process.