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July 13, 2019

The ‘Goldilocks zone’

Opinion

July 13, 2019

For the first time since the Pulwama crisis, two key Track-II dialogues involving Indian and Pakistani delegates are underway.

As Pakistan and India cautiously weigh the pros and cons of resuming some form of formal discussions, it is important to examine the domestic political dynamics in both countries to understand impediments to and opportunities for ensuring peace between both countries.

It was widely contended that Modi’s rise to power in 2014 was based primarily on his economic agenda and promise of a muscular, leaner and cleaner government. This year (2019), however, has been a different story. Despite failing to perform along these critical dimensions, the BJP has been able to successfully marry Hindu majoritarianism and hyper nationalism as instruments of a winning electoral strategy. The Pulwama crisis provided the perfect opportunity to switch electorates’ attention from the former to the latter.

While much has been written on the growing grassroots support for the BJP/RSS version of Hindutva, its recent expansion and endorsement as an expression of Indian nationalism has changed the political dynamics in India. Indian nationalism is increasingly being premised on being a Hindu majority country and being at least anti-Pakistan, if not anti-Muslim.

The greater utility of Pakistan as a ‘problem’ therefore means that a complete normalization of ties and outright ‘friendship’ with the country may not be an attractive idea for the dominant sections of Indian power elites.

In Pakistan, on the other hand, the government remains embroiled in fire-fighting on many fronts. The perennial economic crisis, grave internal security threats, tense negotiations between various parties in Afghanistan and evolving situation in Iran and the Persian Gulf means that there is no appetite for continuing hostilities with India.

This does not mean, however, that there is consensus on building friendly relations with India either. Due to a variety of reasons – including Indian reluctance to discuss Kashmir – the security approach has ostensibly been to keep the needle on Pakistan-India relations in a ‘goldilocks zone’ where they are neither friendly nor hostile.

The Nawaz government’s overtones erring towards the ‘friendly’ side were therefore resisted by arguing for a ‘go-slow’ approach. The Imran government’s efforts towards de-escalation during the Pulwama crisis were supported to pull the relationship back from the ‘hostile’ territory.

This policy is expected to continue. It is important to note that the current dynamics within Pakistan’s politics, along with aversion to initiating military confrontation with India, means that the role of non-state actors that have traditionally sabotaged peace initiatives between both countries is not only unrequired but also unwanted as far as Pakistan is concerned.

The biggest worry, therefore, remains a repeat of Mumbai, Uri or Pulwama attacks by actors intent on taking advantage of the fix both governments find themselves in. After Uri, India claimed that it conducted surgical strikes on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control in Kashmir. After Pulwama, Indian jets crossed the international border and bombed empty spaces inside Pakistani territory. Pakistan responded in kind and the ensuing dog-fight resulted in at least one Indian jet downed and a pilot captured, proving that hostilities may entail serious costs for India as well.

Despite this, in case of any future violent incident, Indian government may feel hard pressed to not only act in a similar fashion, but also provide credible proof to its electorate of inflicting real damage, including casualties, on the Pakistani side. This will inevitably provoke a similar response from Pakistan and what happens next is anyone’s guess.

Stonewalling the possibility of a worse-than-Pulwama crisis must therefore be the topmost priority for both governments. The following suggestions should be considered in this regard.

Both countries should work on developing intelligence sharing mechanism to disrupt transnational violent actors. Pakistan, on its part, should continue its efforts against militant networks of all hues, as envisaged in NAP (2014) and NISP (2018).

India, on the other hand, must refrain from interfering in Pakistan’s internal affairs, be prepared to discuss Kashmir and make greater efforts to reverse a growing sense of alienation among its religious minorities, and its heavy-handed tactics in Kashmir. It must also take greater ownership of home-grown violent actors including those associated with Daesh and those reportedly involved in recent attacks in Sri Lanka.

Both countries should develop mechanisms for joint investigation, evidence sharing and prosecution for incidents that have an international dimension.

Lastly, both countries must develop protocols to keep communication channels open during a crisis. The emphasis here should be on keeping public sentiments in check by jointly controlling the narrative. Fuelling hate against the other at the time of a crisis reduces policy options and the ability of the government to stick to a measured response.

As long as the benefits of low-scale conflict are deemed to outweigh the peace dividend, policymakers on both sides must ensure that if friendship is not a feasible option, neither is war.

The writer holds a PhD in Politics from Oxford University.

Email: [email protected]