Albert Einstein is said to have defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result. This is also an accurate description of India's policy towards Pakistan over the past decade and a half.
The pattern of periodic oscillation between diplomatic engagement and disengagement is wearily familiar. A provocative act by Pakistan leads India to call off diplomatic dialogue, insisting that it can only be resumed if Pakistan meets certain preconditions; there follows a lull when Pakistan is defiantly unyielding; eventually, India is compelled to take the lead and return to the negotiating table despite there being no change in Pakistani behaviour along the lines demanded by us.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemed poised to break this pattern by his bold and imaginative move in inviting his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, for his swearing-in ceremony last year. Yet only a few months later, the government called off talks between the two countries' Foreign Secreraries on the grounds that Pakistan had violated an Indian "red line" by conferring with leaders of the Hurriyat Conference ahead of these talks.
Never mind the fact that India had itself facilitated such meetings in the past. This seemed a poorly thought-through decision even at that time. It was never clear why the Modi government had chosen to draw a red line on this matter: hitherto diplomacy had been suspended owing to Pakistan's sponsorship of terrorism against India. In retrospect, it seems that the government wanted to signal that it would engage Pakistan, but only on its own terms.
This diplomatic high-horse was inevitably difficult to ride. Even a cursory analysis of India-Pakistan relations in the past few years would have pointed this out. But the Modi government stuck to the my-way-or-the-highway line. The diminishing returns of painting ourselves into a corner were evident by the beginning of this year. Foreign Secretary Jaishankar's visit to Islamabad as part of his "SAARC yatra" was a clear indication of this.
At the same time, though, New Delhi was talking about a pro-active strategy in dealing with Pakistan's support for terrorism and its violations of the ceasefire along the Line of Control in Jammu & Kashmir. The National Security Advisor (NSA), Ajit Doval, was previously on record claiming that the Indian strategy towards Pakistan should shift from a defensive posture to a defensive-offensive posture. The latter apparently means that India will if necessary take the fight to Pakistan. Just in case this message was not clear, Mr. Doval had added: "You can do one Mumbai and you may lose Balochistan".
The government seemed utterly oblivious of the strategic and diplomatic consequences of making such bombastic claims. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar periodically warned Pakistan of a disproportionate response in the event of ceasefire violations. More recently, he claimed that India was not averse to using terrorists to target terrorists in Pakistan: "kaante se kaanta nikalna" in his colourful language. In the wake of the cross-border military operation against insurgent groups sheltering in Myanmar, a junior minister warned that such tactics could be employed against Pakistan. These statements played into Pakistan's hands by allowing it to claim that India is involved supporting terrorism against Pakistan.
Not surprisingly, the Pakistani response has been even more boastful. Their Defence Minister claimed this week that Pakistan's nuclear weapons "were not for display alone": they would be used if the country's survival was at stake. The Pakistan army's behaviour has also turned more aggressive, especially along the border and the LoC.
The joint statement issued after yesterday's meeting between Modi and Sharif mentions that the two NSAs will meet to discuss "all issues connected to terrorism". Against the backdrop of the public comments made by Indian officials and ministers, Pakistan will bring up Balochistan and other non-issues merely to counter Indian claims. It is unwise to prejudge diplomatic outcomes, but in this case it may be best not to hope for anything much to come out of this proposed meeting.
The wider context in which India has reached out to Pakistan also points in this direction. Indeed, Mr. Modi's U-turn has been executed in unfavourable circumstances.
Russia has been vocal in calling for resumption of India-Pakistan dialogue. It has even suggested that the membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization would provide a platform for the two countries to discuss all outstanding issues. This turn in Russian stance on India-Pakistan relations follows Moscow's decision to commence defence sales to Pakistan. More significantly, all this happening in the context of Russia's tightening strategic ties with China. Russia has also been supportive of Pakistan's role in fostering a dialogue between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban. In the past, of course, Russia and India had worked together to prevent a Pakistan-backed Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Interestingly, Islamabad has also announced that they have recently facilitated one such round of meetings in Pakistan between Afghan officials and the Taliban-a meeting held in the presence of American and Chinese representatives.
In short, Mr. Modi's return to the negotiating table comes at a time when Pakistan's hand on Afghanistan is very strong. Islamabad will obviously seek to shrink the Indian presence in Afghanistan as a quid pro quo for a facilitating a deal with the Taliban. The gains made by India in Afghanistan over the past decade are in the danger of slipping away.
There will be wider consequences of India being circled out of Afghanistan. During the Prime Minister's visit to Central Asia last week, several commentators claimed that India was at last an active player in the geopolitics of the region-Great Game 2.0. Such fantasies are apparently immune to the realities of geography. Without a working relationship with Pakistan and close ties with Afghanistan, India's ability to project influence and power in Central Asia is extremely limited.
Nor is India's involvement in developing the Chabahar Port in Iran likely to compensate for these. In some ways, this project has taken off a bit too late. If Iran manages to clinch a nuclear agreement with the United States, its reliance on-and interest in-countries such as India will certainly be reduced. Already, in anticipation of a deal, the Iranians are driving tough bargains in commercial negotiations with India. New Delhi has to shoulder part of the blame for not making the best of Iran's years in isolation. The Ministry of External Affairs misread the situation by assuming, against all indications to the contrary, that Iran was not sincere about striking a deal with the US on the nuclear issue. If such a deal does come through in the days ahead, then India's room for manoeuvre in its Western neighbourhood will be further restricted.
Nevertheless, even if the context and timing are unpropitious, Mr. Modi's decision to reach out to Pakistan must be welcomed. By agreeing to travel to Pakistan for the next SAARC summit, he has raised expectations of progress. Inevitably, there will be attempts by various groups in Pakistan to play the spoiler and pressures from his own base to act tough. Let's hope that Mr. Modi can stay the diplomatic course.
(Srinath Raghavan is Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi)
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