Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

India should stop appeasing Pakistan

Sooner or later all governments try to placate Pakistan. Has that changed?

On Monday, New Delhi witnessed an unusual event. Hours before he was to meet a group of separatists from Jammu and Kashmir, Abdul Basit, Pakistan’s high commissioner to India, received a call from India’s foreign secretary Sujatha Singh. He was told not to meet them. Remarkable for an envoy, he refused to heed his host’s words. The reaction was swift. Within hours, talks between the foreign secretaries of the two countries were shelved. Pakistan has been gently reminded that like oil and water, diplomacy and cussedness don’t mix.

One way to describe what happened is to claim that Pakistan has been sent a strong message that the era of “weakness" by Indian governments is over. That is fine, but it does not explain the game of musical chairs between the two bickering neighbours that has been on for two decades now. A better description is that the relationship is caught between two poles: anarchy and appeasement. For the moment, appeasement has ended. What needs to be explained is why India experiences these two extremes.

Since 1998, when the Nawaz Sharif government exploded nuclear devices in a tit-for-tat reaction to India, Pakistan’s economy has slid irreversibly. Crippling power shortages, total mismanagement of water resources and a generalized loss of productive activities mark its economy. India, in contrast, has moved from strength to strength. In spite of high inflation, fall in savings and an investment collapse in recent years, in comparative terms, India is decisively ahead of Pakistan.

This has not been lost on Pakistan. A fundamental shift in the country’s strategic outlook can now be discerned, one in which India is permanently under the barrel of a gun. India’s strength is now its biggest disadvantage against Pakistan. To use economist Jack Hirshleifer’s terminology, Pakistan holds the “technology of conflict" while India has the “technology of production". The technology of conflict is cheap. As one commentator described it, it is no more than a set of cheap tent and donkey cart training camps for terrorists. India, on the other hand, has much to lose. It has a sophisticated financial system that can react unpredictably to any terrorist activity. But much more than that, the constant threat of terrorist disruption can take away that most precious, but intangible, commodity “the will to invest". At the slightest sign of trouble, international investors can re-think their plans; India’s rich states—Gujarat and Punjab, home to the country’s industrial and agricultural infrastructure—are under constant threat.

It is this realization that has brought Indian governments of all complexions to heel. Atal Bihari Vajpayee mustered a huge number of troops after the terrorist attack on Parliament in 2001, almost to a state of war. He backed away after realizing that Pakistan could not be taught a lesson without inflicting serious costs on the Indian economy. Manmohan Singh, a far weaker prime minister, adopted a different strategy after the 2009 Mumbai attacks. His idea was that economic integration between the two countries could wean Pakistan away from the technology of conflict.

Has the Narendra Modi government realized that a country addicted to the technology of conflict cannot be “de-addicted" from it? It is the same problem that governments face when re-habilitating terrorists: How to wean them away from the life of comfort with a gun where one can loot and take anything one wants. In Pakistan’s case, the problem is harder for it has not even reached the stage of rehabilitation.

This realization may be the single biggest act of realism on part of a government after a decade of mindless appeasement. But it is also a point where a bigger question looms: what next? If you know that your adversary is not interested in peaceful negotiation—short of taking what it wants—and does not want economic integration for a shared future, what should you do? As a signalling matter, shelving meetings is fine but India needs a sound strategy ahead.

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