Indo-Pak ties: Handling a Hot Potato

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) meeting the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, at Lahore, Pakistan
LAHORE, DEC 25 (UNI):- Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) meeting the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, at Lahore, Pakistan on Friday. UNI PHOTO - 132U
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Despite strident calls for action against our belligerent neighbour, Modi has realized that this is easier said than done. Deft handling and tightening security are the need of the hour

By Seema Guha

The India-Pakistan script is running true to form. The cycle is the same, whether it is Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh or Narendra Modi. There are efforts at peace talks, enthusiastic build-up and cautious hope. Even if a breakthrough was not possible, it was hoped that one could live live-by-side as civilized neighbors. However, a terror strike or an incursion changes the narrative and hardliners on both sides of the border have a field day as they trade volleys of accusations and get their two minutes of fame.

Vajpayee’s regime was marked by the Lahore bus ride and Kargil as well as the 2001 parliament attack. In 2008, Pakistan’s president Asif Zardari was keen on peace and sent his foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, to India. But the Mumbai terror attack took place when the minister was here. The generals ordered him to cancel the rest of his visit and peace went for a toss.

Similarly, Modi’s Christmas overture when he stopped at Lahore to meet his counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, came to naught after the Pathankot attack. The recent Uri attack has dealt a death blow to hopes of rapprochement between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. Unless there is a drastic change in the situation, Modi will not travel to Islamabad for the SAARC summit in November and relations will be in a deep freeze until the next cycle begins.

WAR CRY

Uri is not the first nor will it be the last terror strike. The public mood has changed drastically since the 2008 Mumbai terror attack as people have got more and more impatient with Pakistan. Anger in the army is also said to be brimming over, with soldiers wanting to avenge the death of their colleagues in Uri. Also, the 24×7 TV coverage of the aftermath of the attack, interviews with families of the soldiers killed and their funerals have made most Indians angry. “Pakistan has to be taught a lesson’’, is the general refrain. BJP’s Seshadri Chari declared that Pakistan would not survive to celebrate August 14, 2017, its next Independence Day. This kind of rhetoric builds up the hysteria for revenge attacks.

We expose our vulnerability every time. This is the price we pay for our mistakes. It is time we made our defenses impregnable. The rest of the world cannot save us from such attacks, we have to do it ourselves.

—Shyam Saran, former foreign secretary

Moreover, with the BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar’s belief in a strong state, the cry for retaliation is gathering fever-pitch. Modi, who as chief minister of Gujarat had poured scorn on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for his weak-kneed response to Pakistan, is now caught in his own rhetoric. It wasn’t just Modi, but many BJP leaders who had launched vitriolic attacks on the UPA for not giving Pakistan a fitting reply. But now, the pressure on the government from both the party and the Parivar is intense. Being in the hot seat now, Modi knows the responsibility that comes with exercising power. Despite the hysteria, India’s reaction so far has not been about hot pursuit, though this was the stand long favored by the party.

Thankfully, a week after the Uri attack, war clouds have lifted. A full-fledged war with Pakistan is out of question. Instead, India has begun a diplomatic offensive at the UN and will continue talking about Pakistan as the fountainhead of terror, a phrase popularized by former foreign minister Jaswant Singh after the parliament attack.

Countries will all condemn terror but not a single nation will place sanctions on Pakistan. India knows that very well. But there is nothing wrong in playing to a gullible domestic audience.

Countries will all condemn terror but not a single nation will place sanctions on Pakistan or isolate it diplomatically. India knows that very well but there is nothing wrong in playing to a gullible domestic audience. Despite tensions between the US and Pakistan, Washington cannot operate in Afghanistan without Islamabad’s help. Pakistan is also central to talks between the Taliban and Ashraf Ghani’s government in Kabul. The Pakistan military’s close ties with the Afghan Taliban give it leverage with both the Americans and the Afghan government. 

DEAL WITH PAKISTAN

The US and Pakistan army completed nine days of joint exercises on September 15. Both have been working together since the Afghan resistance against Russian troops. But for the first time, Pakistan and Russia are holding military exercises starting September 24. US aid to Pakistan may have been slashed and a bill designated to dub it a terror state is before the US Congress, but it is unlikely that this will ever be passed. Every country will have to deal with Pakistan its own way.

US aid to Pakistan may have been slashed and a bill designated to dub it a terror state is before the US Congress, but it is unlikely that this will ever be passed. Every country will have to deal with Pakistan its own way.

Much of India’s diplomatic initiative will mean little on the ground. Talks of retaliatory strikes deep inside Pakistan territory are fraught with danger. A superpower like the US, which is militarily far superior to any other force, can fly into Abbottabad and take Osama bin Laden out. India is not in the same position to penetrate deep into Pakistani territory and destroy militant camps, despite threats to that effect. At the most, camps near LoC can be targeted, but Pakistan also anticipates this and is prepared to respond effectively. But before retired generals, officials and Sangh Parivar loyalists keep harping on retaliatory strikes, India has to fix its own glaring security lapses.

INTERNAL SECURITY

India needs to make security in its army camps and other defense establishments fool-proof. India is no stranger to terror strikes. Whether in Kashmir, the North-East, or more recently in the war against Maoists, attacks on security forces and paramilitary have been going on. After every such incident, commissions are appointed to find out the lapses that took place and promises are made to plug those loopholes. But there is no concrete evidence of it working.

At a time when Kashmir is on the boil, how is it that the army unit in Uri remained casual about security? It is also well-known that army camps are most vulnerable early morning and at dusk when duty shift changes take place. Yet, the terrorists could clamber in and get at the soldiers when they were busy with morning ablutions and unarmed. How could the terrorists get so far into the camp without being sighted? Uri has a relatively less hostile population and that perhaps could have lulled the camp commander into complacency.

These are the mistakes that India cannot afford to make. If the camp had followed the correct security drill, the terrorists would have been spotted and challenged earlier and precious lives would have been saved. “We expose our vulnerability every time. This is the price we pay for our mistakes. It is time we made our defenses impregnable. The rest of the world cannot save us from such attacks, we have to do it ourselves,’’ said former foreign secretary Shyam Saran.

Revoking the Indus Water Treaty, signed in 1960 is being enthusiastically promoted by some strategists. Any attempt to block water to Pakistan will not go with India’s image as a mature democracy, which has problems with the Pakistan government but not the people.

Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar has promised that such a lapse would not happen again. There has to be accountability. Heads have to roll and the entire security system hauled up. But the debate in the country has so far not focused on these obvious flaws in the security establishment.

How does India deal with Pakistan, where successive civilian governments have been held hostage to the military’s diktats? Unless civilian governments can break the stranglehold of the army, not much can be expected. The army is paranoid about India, more or so after its humiliating surrender in Dhaka and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. Pakistan’s fear is further dismemberment by India. This is the reason that Rawalpindi fears India’s footprints in Afghanistan. Its recurring nightmare is India and Afghanistan getting together to help Baloch independence. Pakistan uses Kashmir to hit back at India. 

TERROR STATE

Encouraging anti-India terror groups and arming and training them have been a part of the Pakistan army’s policy. But it is not just India, but the US and NATO that have had a taste of the Pakistani army and its spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Pakistan’s credentials as a country that uses terror groups is now recognized by most countries. In the 1980s and 1990s, Indian diplomats in western capitals had a tough time trying to explain Kashmir and Pakistan’s role in stoking the unrest. But after Afghanistan and the problems faced by the US and NATO troops, it has become much easier. Naming and shaming Pakistan may give satisfaction to the impotent rage in India, but will have little effect.

“Military conflict is not the answer,’’ said Saran. “We have to look at our strategic interests. Development, providing jobs and a decent living to people is India’s core interest. Resources will have to be diverted if India goes to war and after Mumbai, when this option was considered by the UPA government the decision was that the price would be too high to pay.”

INDUS WATER TREATY 

Among the non-military options that are on the table for the Modi government is downgrading relations with Pakistan, withdrawing the Most Favored Status granted to it in 2012 and abrogating the Indus Water Treaty. Downgrading diplomatic ties is unlikely and withdrawal of MFN status will not make any impact. Overland trade between the two neighbors is just over $2 billion, and the figures are heavily weighed in India’s favor. Most of the trade is through a third country like Dubai. This does not get affected.

Revoking the Indus Water Treaty, signed in 1960 is being enthusiastically promoted by some strategists. India controls the flow of three Punjab rivers—Beas, Ravi and the Sutlej, while Pakistan has the three main rivers—Indus, Jhelum and Chenab—flowing through it. But stopping the flow of water to Pakistan would affect the lives of ordinary people and agriculture. Any attempt to block water to Pakistan will not go with India’s image as a mature democracy, which has problems with the Pakistan government but not the people.

India also needs to tackle Kashmir. Whether it is the Congress or the BJP, neither party has tried to solve the genuine grievances of the people of Kashmir. Governments wake up only during a crisis. Unless Delhi begins talks with its own people there and finds a solution within the constitution, Pakistan will continue to exploit our weakness.

Lead picture: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif during his impromptu Lahore visit, which was followed by the attack on Pathankot. Photo: UNI

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