Talks about talks with Pakistan

The Modi government should put grand rapprochement with Pakistan on hold and leave diplomacy to diplomats


A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in Lahore. Photo: PTI
A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in Lahore. Photo: PTI

Guftgu bandh na ho, baat se baat chale; Subah tak shaam-e-mulaqaat chale; Hum pe hasti hui yeh taaron bhari raat chale. (Let the conversation not end, may one word lead to another. May the discourse continue from dusk till dawn, with the starry night smiling down upon us.)

When the acclaimed poet Ali Sardar Jafri published his anthology Sarhad containing these famous lines, the two countries had conducted nuclear tests, thereby overtly declaring their nuclear weapons capabilities, and the shrill, bellicose rhetoric emanating from both countries raised grave concerns over the deteriorating situation in the subcontinent.

Merely a year later, signs of a thaw appeared to emerge with prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to Pakistan (where he gifted cassettes of Jafri’s ghazal to his hosts) and the signing of the Lahore Declaration between Vajpayee and his counterpart Nawaz Sharif.

India-Pakistan ties are prone to dramatic oscillations, from a state of war (or near-war) to euphoria. In his book India-Pakistan Negotiations: Is Past Still Prologue, the former diplomat Dennis Kux postulates that there are three forms that India-Pakistan talks have historically taken: problem-solving talks (for example, the Indus Waters Treaty), post-war talks (the Tashkent and Shimla agreements) and talks about talks (the 1999 Lahore Declaration and the 2001 Agra Summit).

It is the last category of talks that we concern ourselves with here, as the Narendra Modi government appears desirous of pressing forward with a new initiative towards Pakistan. A prevalent view in India is that sustained dialogue at the highest levels offers the only realistic chance for peace.

In response to this prevailing narrative, the Takshashila Institution has released a discussion document dissecting the assumptions that have resulted in the perception. The study finds that the edifice of assumptions on which the dialogue process as a policy instrument rests is weak.

In reality, talks, especially at higher levels of the political ladder, have a close correlation with provocative action from Pakistan. Vajpayee’s visit to Lahore in 1999 was followed by incursions in Kargil and the attack on the Indian Parliament came close on the heels of Pervez Musharraf’s visit to Agra. This time, Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore yielded a three-pronged assault on India: first, at Pathankot air base, then at Indian consulates in Mazar-i-Sharif and Jalalabad in Afghanistan.

These provocations underscore the Pakistan army’s thinking as it relates to India and shatter the carefully constructed narrative of its commitment to the new peace initiatives. The Pakistan army has long since institutionalized hostility towards India and sees itself as contesting not only territorial space with India, but also ideological frontiers (as articulated in the Pakistan army’s 1994 Green Book). It is not what India possesses, but rather, what India is, that agitates Pakistan. Thus, for example, the popular notion that resolving Jammu and Kashmir territorially will lead to lasting peace between India and Pakistan holds no water.

Analysts argue that the Peshawar tragedy has altered the Pakistan army’s calculus and its support of terrorist groups. Yet, Pakistan has not targeted any anti-India groups it has fostered. Of course, Pakistan’s ongoing investigation into the Pathankot attack and the arrests made are welcome, but it has a history of temporary action against militant assets (forcing Masood Azhar to go underground and allegedly arresting Hafiz Saeed after 26/11) to alleviate international pressure. Is the army likely to completely dismantle the infrastructure of terror it has built?

It is important to recognize that the defining value of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex—a dynamic matrix of military, militant, radical Islamist and sociopolitical-economic structures—is that reconciliation with India is detrimental to its interests and survival. It explains why previous negotiations, however close they might have been to a solution, have failed; the complex strikes back whenever it feels threatened.

History also provides little evidence to support the argument that Pakistan’s civilian leaders are fundamentally committed to peace with India. To their credit, some Pakistani leaders (like Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari) have made statements in support of better relations with India. Yet, Pakistan’s two largest political parties also have an unfortunate track record of supporting and implementing policy hostile towards India.

Benazir Bhutto, for example, diplomatically internationalized Kashmir and ramped up aid to militant groups. Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was the chief architect of the 1965 war and of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme. Most political parties in Pakistan, like Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N), have also historically allied with militant groups—including those inimical to India—for political gain. They will likely find that severing ties with these groups is not as easy or convenient as it might seem.

India must recognize that talking to Pakistan is no guarantee against terrorism, just as not talking to Pakistan cannot ensure India of a terror-free environment. Only by putting in place mitigation strategies can India hope to better protect itself from the terror infrastructure that continues to thrive in Pakistan. These mitigation strategies require India to muster resources at its disposal (including political, diplomatic, economic and military) and channelize them much more effectively to both insulate the country and impose costs when transgressions occur.

As for the current peace initiatives, India is better served by leaving the handling of its Pakistan policy to civil servants and diplomats, rather than its political leadership. The Modi government is better off putting grand rapprochement with Pakistan on hold while expending available political capital to launch economic reforms and get the country onto the bullet train to prosperity.

Rohan Joshi and Pranay Kotasthane research on India’s foreign policy at the Takshashila Institution, a Bengaluru-based think tank and school of public policy.

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