The Neighbour from Hell
Ambassador Prabhat P Shukla
The decision to call off the scheduled Foreign Secretary level talks with Pakistan appears to have taken many by surprise, and left many in India quite unhappy. They seem to be unable to understand that a meeting between the Pakistan High Commissioner and various Hurriyat leaders could call forth such a response from the Indian Government. These persons have accepted the Pakistani argument that it was routine for Pakistani leaders to meet the Hurriyat, and so there was no call for the talks to be cancelled.
The Pakistanis have spoken with one voice, as they usually do on India-related matters; there are no doves on their side. Not one person from Pakistan who appeared on our TV shouting matches has accepted that their High Commissioner was wrong to disregard the clear message given by the Indian side of the consequences of going ahead with the meeting with the Hurriyat.
Instead, they have utilised the occasion to come across as the injured innocents, and have added that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was keen on improving ties with India; that he deserved credit for coming to India for Modi’s swearing-in and staying overnight for a meeting; that he was under pressure, and needed support, not this snub; and that the Indian action had strengthened the hard-liners in Pakistan. In short, they have spelt out the usual paradigm, in which the onus is on India to show restraint because otherwise bilateral relations will suffer.
To dispose of the most frequently-employed argument in this case: it was routine for Pakistani leaders and diplomats to meet Hurriyat representatives. All too true, but it was rarely the case that we did not make our unhappiness known to the Pakistani side. They knew well that we did not like it, but in our typical craven approach to Pakistan, we never did anything about it. In these circumstances, it is only appropriate that the Government should have reacted by cancelling the FS level talks. The fact that we did not react in this manner in the past is no reason why we should not do so now. Indeed, it is important that the Government draw up a series of red lines vis-a-vis Pakistan, like the use of terrorism directed against India, which if crossed would involve appropriate punitive measures.
Think about it: the Pakistanis have also made it a routine to use terror against India for the past thirty years, starting in Punjab, going on to Kashmir, and then all over the country. And after each such act, once the initial outrage passed, the Indian side would crawl back into some sort of dialogue. Does that mean that this is the right pattern of behaviour? Or, take the fact that Pakistan, in egregious violation of its international legal obligations, refuses to allow Indian exports into Pakistan on MFN basis - on the most puerile of excuses. If we were to take action on this, is it any defence to say that they have been doing this for twenty years?
If the Indian Government decides to address these brazen violations of international law and takes counter measures, it would be no defence to say that these are all ongoing issues of long standing. No, Pakistan had it coming, and cannot play injured innocent now. The fact that earlier Indian Government’s did not take the required counter measures on a host of transgressions by Pakistan does not mean that that the present Government should desist from so doing.
Then there is the argument about Nawaz Sharif. There are two angles to this one: one, is he really the friend he is projected to be? And, two, even if he is, does that mean he can be allowed to hurt our interests? On the first, it would be worthwhile remembering his record since the early 1990’s. It was during his tenure as Prime Minister 1990 – 93, that the horrific Bombay blasts occurred and Pakistan was placed on the watch-list of state-sponsors of terrorism by the US. And it was during his second term that he gave us Kargil, and then allowed that he was not in the know. In fact, he was very much in the know.
And in this term, he has raised the Kashmir issue at the UN, and with the US President. He has also talked of moving forward on trade, but has refused to accept his WTO obligation of giving Indian exports MFN treatment. Cease-fire violations continue apace, are in fact, growing in number and intensity, including across the international boundary.
The second angle is equally important. From the days of Ayub and the Tashkent Agreement, we have made ourselves mental prisoners of the logic that we have to “do something” to help one or other leader. With Ayub as “best bet”, it was the hard-line ZA Bhutto, who had to be held off, with his promise of a thousand-year war. Irony of ironies, this very same man had to be helped at Simla in 1972, because he was now the man of peace! These “best bets” have been dangled before us subsequently too, right up to the present, through Benazir Bhutto, Zardari, and of course the perennial Mian Sahib; they should by now be a warning to Indian policy-makers inclined to gamble with the fate of India.
It would also be legitimate to ask, doesn’t Modi need to be given a leg-up by the Pakistanis? This same Nawaz Sharif let down Vajpayee with the Kargil War, and no one accused him of letting down a sincere interlocutor. In the same way, he has let down Modi, who clearly wanted to seek a fresh start. Even at his Independence Day speech, he did not respond to Mian Sahib’s remarks on Kashmir the previous day. And yet, our mind-sets remain the same: India must put up with Pakistani rogue behaviour, the other side has no stakes in showing concern for our interests.
The other charge is that Modi has strengthened the Pakistani hard-liners with this decision. History tells us that, in fact, the hard-liners – and they are all over, not just in the Army – were softened up after 1971, when they tasted humiliation after their over-reach. The appeasement of the last two decades has, in fact, strengthened the hard-liners. They have come to accept that India will turn the other cheek, and come back to the negotiating table sooner or later, if only Pakistan stood its ground. And this has become the set pattern of behaviour.
In fact, this is a good opportunity for Mian Sahib, if indeed he wants good relations with India but is being held back by some other hard-liners, to turn to those who drove the pro-Hurriyat stance and ask what they now propose to do. It is they who are boxed in, not Modi. The harsh truth is that we do not need Pakistan for any of our strategic purposes. There was a time when it could play spoiler, but that time is now gone. On the contrary, it is Pakistan that needs India. Pakistan needs electricity, which it is horribly short of, and there are shutdowns of up to 18 hours a day in urban centres too. Things have got to the point where it is becoming a social and political problem. We were prepared to sell electricity to them, but should now reconsider. Similarly, we were preparing to sell imported natural gas to them, and this again is something Pakistan desperately needs, since all its own import schemes have come a cropper – the country is effectively bankrupt.
All this, however, now needs to be fitted into a new pattern of relations. Of course, this means consistency, and a steady hand: good behaviour will call forth a generous response; aggressiveness will be met with a firm response involving penal measures. It will take time, but the hard-liners will get the message. There are some externalities in the equation, and they cannot be ignored. But they can, and ought to, be tackled with some pro-active diplomacy. It would also be imperative to look to our defences.
Essentially, what Pakistan was doing was probing Modi, testing his resolve – was he the same as all those who went before him, or was he different? They have got an answer, but the testing of his firmness, and capability, will continue. The Pakistani deep state is committed to this provocative policy stance, and has been indulged by us for three decades. It will not give up easily, and we should also recognise that they are resolute and tactically smart. But they are financially and strategically bankrupt, and those are the weaknesses we have to play on.
There is, certainly, every chance that the country will implode before all that happens. As this is being written, Islamabad is under siege from the shock-troops of Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri. Where all this will lead is anybody’s guess, but the Pakistani commentators, even the sober ones, seem to be growing ever more pessimistic about the country’s future. It may thus come to pass that the country itself might disintegrate. That poses a different set of issues, and we need to prepare for every contingency arising in our North-West.