January 9, 2016 12:40:27 am
LESS than six weeks after Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif agreed to restart the India-Pakistan peace process in a quiet meeting in Paris, their audacious effort is at risk of being reduced to ashes by the fires lit in Pathankot. New Delhi announced, on Thursday, that it expects prompt action from Pakistan against the alleged perpetrators of the attack. Though India has not explicitly said so, it has signalled that talks between the two countries’ foreign secretaries may even be called off in the event the perpetrators are not arrested.
Events are playing true to the dismal script of India-Pakistan engagement. Progress towards peacemaking has, with depressing regularity, been blown apart by terrorist violence and the political costs this imposes on Indian political leaders. India’s intelligence services, and even independent commentators, had warned of just this prospect. Delhi ought, thus, to have anticipated the prospect of an attack, and anticipated the fallout by preparing the public. Even now, however, it is important that Delhi steer clear of the trap of calling off talks — the outcome the terrorists and their state sponsors seek.
This one fact is key: Engagement serves India’s strategic interest, allowing outreach to some of the many sharply divided constituencies that make up Pakistan’s polity. Though engagement does nothing to temper the hostility of Pakistan’s army to normalisation, it allows for incremental movements on trade and people-to-people contact.
These, it stands to reason, serve to strengthen civilian constituencies seeking peace. It is no one’s case that these constituencies can compel Pakistan’s army to sever its links with its anti-India jihadist clients. Pakistan will not act against groups like the Jaish-e-Muhammad or Lashkar-e-Taiba, for the simple reason that its all-powerful army sees them as useful instruments, both to pressure India on Kashmir and as a bulwark against anti-Pakistan jihadists.
Having said that, Pakistan-backed violence far more intense than today inflicted no strategic harm on India. Indeed, Pakistan is now worse off, relative to India, than it was when the army launched its proxy war campaign in the mid-1980s.
Prime Minister Modi now needs to reach out to India’s people, and explain just why it is in the country’s interests to continue the dialogue he began. Engagement, he must argue, serves India’s long-term interests, even if its short-term results are uncertain, and gains limited. He needs to explain, too, that engagement does not close the doors for retaliation, should it become necessary. However, war — urged on the government each night by prime-time anchors — is not to be taken casually. Like peacemaking, the outcomes of conflict are unpredictable, but its costs, human and economic, are gargantuan. India’s interests are served best by cold-blooded restraint, not the primal reflex to avenge a hurt.
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