PM Modi, Is There a Method to This Madness

Harsh V. Pant is Professor of International Relations at King's College London. His most recent book is "India's Afghan Muddle" (HarperCollins).

The Modi government's Pakistan policy is facing a serious crisis - a crisis of credibility. In an absence of a clear strategy, there have been several U-turns that have befuddled this government's supporters and critics alike. Consistency is overrated in diplomacy. A nation's foreign policy should be nimble enough to be able to respond effectively to ever dynamic domestic and international contexts. But the Modi government's Pakistan policy has taken so many turns in the last 10 months that it is in danger of becoming a joke.

It had all started on a high note. After coming to office, the Modi government rightly gave the Indian military much-needed operational space to carve out a response against Pakistani provocations along the Line of Control which was swift, sharp and effective. Together, the Indian government and the nation's military managed to underline the costs of Pakistan's dangerous escalatory tactics with targeted attacks on Pakistani Ranger posts along the border. The government then went on to cancel bilateral talks in August last year after Pakistani High Commissioner Abdul Basit met Kashmiri separatist leaders. The message that seemed to be emanating from Delhi was that it retains the initiative on any move towards normalisation of ties with Pakistan.

But just a few months down the line, the Modi government has not only resumed bilateral dialogue even as Pakistani violations of the ceasefire have been steadily mounting, it has even conveyed to Pakistani authorities that the Pakistani High Commissioner is free to host separatist leaders except when officials talks are on. Where this leaves the government's earlier moves remains a moot point. This confusion is manifest even in the government's own pronouncements. When Mr Modi greeted Mr Sharif on Pakistan's Republic Day, he tweeted: "I have written to Pakistan PM Mr. Nawaz Sharif, conveying my greetings on the National Day of Pakistan," adding further, "It is my firm conviction that all outstanding issues can be resolved through bilateral dialogue in an atmosphere free from terror & violence."  

India was also forced to reacted to the Pakistani Embassy inviting Indian separatist leaders to their Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi with the Ministry of External Affairs underlining that "the Government of India prefers to speak for itself. There should be no scope for misunderstanding or misinterpretation on India's position on role of 'so-called' Hurriyat [separatist]... there are only two parties and there is no place for a third party in resolution of India-Pakistan issues."

It is difficult to take these pronouncements seriously when the Modi government seems to be doing everything possible to undermine its own position on these key issues. It is clear that Pakistan is getting emboldened because of developments in India and the larger region.


Though the United States has decided to keep the 9,800 troops currently in Afghanistan on the ground through the end of the year, rather than reducing the number to 5,500 as planned, it does not change the Obama administration's withdrawal date of December 2016 for all US forces. Without American forces in Afghanistan, there is a strong possibility that Afghanistan could host a reinvigorated Taliban allied to a reinvigorated al Qaeda, not to mention ISIS, which is gaining a foothold in the region. And Pakistan has emerged as central to the outreach to the Taliban by Washington and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

In Jammu and Kashmir, the new PDP-BJP coalition government has sent mixed signals about their seriousness in tackling extremists in the state. The PDP has been so solicitous of Pakistan that it has even credited Islamabad with making elections in the state a success. And now with the Modi government's erratic policy on talks, Pakistan's intransigence vis-a-vis India seems to be paying off.

Given New Delhi's reluctance to continue to impose costs on Pakistan, is it any surprise that Rawalpindi believes it can get away with anything? There is an entire industry in India that for decades has been chanting the mantra of engagement with Pakistan. The crucial issue is not engagement or disengagement - it is engagement on whose terms and towards what end! The choice that India has is not between talking and sulking. Pakistan has continued to manage the facade of talks even as its support for separatism and extremism in India continues unabated. India should also continue to talk (there is nothing to lose in having some level of diplomatic engagement after all) even as it needs to unleash other arrows in its quiver to manage Pakistan.

Pakistan's longstanding policy of bleeding India by a thousand cuts continues unabated because it remains convinced about India's inability and unwillingness to impose serious costs. Unless the Modi government makes a clean break from the past, it will also make India hostage to perpetual turmoil much like its predecessors.

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