Updated: April 9, 2016 12:09:31 am
You cannot shake hands,” Indira Gandhi once said, “with a clenched fist.” Faced with a setback to his ambitious Pakistan policy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi may be ruefully contemplating her words. The fact, however, seems to be that his effort rested more on bravura performance than a careful script. The prime minister must be commended for risking political capital in the pursuit of peace, but it now seems that he operated without a roadmap. His aides, more than once, allowed themselves to be beguiled on the basis of the thinnest evidence that Pakistan’s generals had aligned themselves with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s objectives. New Delhi, having begun the talks, proved unclear about just how much it was willing to concede on big-ticket issues like the Siachen glacier. Indian responses to the inevitable terrorist attacks had not been discussed either in Delhi or with Islamabad. The hasty meeting between National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and his Pakistani counterpart, Lieutenant General Naseer Janjua, in Bangkok was a case study in how not to manage a crisis, with the two prime ministers signalling that they did not trust their diplomats to do the job. There ought to be no surprise, then, that there is no happy ending in sight for this big fat desi wedding: The band and baaja, as it were, took up all the time of the two families.
The meltdown of this round of dialogue, though, ought to point policymakers to a bigger conundrum. The India-Pakistan dialogue process emerged from the crisis of 2001-02, when the two countries almost lurched into a conflict neither could afford. Pakistan’s strategic landscape today, though, has been transfigured beyond recognition. Internal challenges, not war with India, pose its principal existential threat. In 2002, General Pervez Musharraf had incentives to rein in the jihad in Kashmir; his successors, today, need the support of anti-India jihadists to battle anti-Pakistan jihadists. Delhi hasn’t fully come to terms with the fact that the ground has shifted in the last decade and a half. In essence, Modi was following a script authored by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee — but the world in which it worked no longer exists.
In weeks to come, it will be tempting for the prime minister to retreat into a shell. This would be the wrong response. Dialogue with Pakistan is a means to give India a stable neighbourhood, something it needs to pursue for its overarching strategic aim of high economic growth. It is not an end in itself — least of all an end limited to diplomatic formalism. There are things Delhi can do — like expanded cultural, economic and political engagement — which may in the long term prove effective in marginalising the anti-India constituency on which the Pakistan army’s power depends. Delhi has been driven back to the drawing board — but that ought not to be reason for despair.
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