Either carrot or stick

August 31, 2014

Until there is some semblance of political clarity and/or stability in Pakistan, it is unlikely that there will be any meaningful engagement possible

Either carrot or stick

The decision of the Modi government to call off the Foreign Secretary level talks because of the meeting between the Pakistan High Commissioner and the Hurriyat leaders has received mixed response in India.

The vast majority of people feel that this was the right thing to do; a minority (mostly the usual suspects comprising professional Modi-baiters and Modi-haters in the media) have been lamenting the decision, almost as though heavens are going to fall because two bureaucrats are not going to meet. Frankly, if there was some epoch-changing deal that was to be inked by the two sides, the heart-burn among Modi detractors would be understandable. But at best, these were going to be talks about talks. This is something that can happen anytime and, as such, there is no setback, much less a breakdown, at least so far.

What is important, however, is the signals that are being sent out ever since the Modi government assumed office. Until now, it appears as though Pakistan has misread these signals, misinterpreted the new government’s intentions and miscalculated its resolve. This is partly because Pakistan’s policy makers, it seems, are influenced more by the raving and ranting of the left-liberal columnists in India than by the ground realities.

Left out of the loop in the new dispensation, much of what they write is not only misinformed, it is also dripping with their prejudice and spite. For Pakistanis, to lap up what these people write is natural. After all, not only do they show more concern for Pakistani compulsions and sensitivities, they also blatantly and brazenly disregard India’s own concerns, positions and sensitivities. Not surprisingly, they don’t find many takers for what they sell in India.

While there is as yet no crystallisation of the Modi model of dealing with Pakistan, there are enough straws in the wind for anyone who is seriously interested in figuring out the subtle and yet significant shifts in focus and policy of the Modi government. Broadly speaking, Modi’s approach to Pakistan will be very different from that of his predecessors because he has neither any nostalgia about Pakistan, nor any romantic notions about being the guy who breaks the logjam with Pakistan. He will most likely adopt a hard-headed and realistic policy underpinned by his nationalistic instincts.

From what is available in the public domain, three menus are on offer to Pakistan. The option for choosing some items from each of the menus is not available. The choice is between one or the other.

The first menu is that of economic cooperation and progress. India will be happy to go the extra mile if Pakistan grasps this offer, something that was signalled by the Pakistan-specific budgetary item introduced on the issue of the proposed gas pipeline project. The second menu on offer to Pakistan is that of continuing with the bloody-minded policy of ceaseless conflict and irredentism. Any provocation from Pakistan will receive a robust riposte, which is going to be more than adequate and probably more than what Pakistan expects. The sign of this is clear from the response to the ceasefire violations along the international border and LoC.

There is a third menu which is also available. This is that both countries turn their back on each other for the foreseeable future and do their own thing without provoking or poking a finger in the eye of the other side. They deal with each other to the extent that neighbouring countries need to on a variety of issues. To put it another way, India would be loath to adding to Pakistan’s troubles, but will react strongly if Pakistan creates any troubles in India.

These mutually exclusive menus being offered are going to confront Pakistan with a dilemma. If it prefers cooperation over conflict, it won’t be long before traders and not soldiers (as the venerable Khaled Ahmed puts it) call the shots, and traders donlike to disturb the status quo. If, however, Pakistan chooses conflict, then it can forget the economy, which in turn means that its ability to confront India will be seriously impaired because of the growing gap with India.

Effectively, what these menus mean is that the Modi government has crafted a carrot and stick policy in which Pakistan can either choose carrots or sticks. It cannot have a bit of both, something that has been happening until now. If Pakistan chooses carrots (menu one and three), then by definition it must put the jihadists -- state, non-state or quasi state -- out of business; if however it persists with the jihadist track, then there are likely to be consequences.

It will probably take some time for Pakistan to understand the import of what is being signalled. For now, it seems, the signals have either not been understood or deliberately ignored, something that became apparent when the Pakistan High Commissioner decided to ‘consult’ the Hurriyat leaders on the eve of the Foreign Secretary talks.

Pakistan should have realised that the Modi government wouldn’t take very kindly to this kind of symbolism, especially after the Pakistan Prime Minister very graciously, and one daresay bravely and sensibly, decided to adhere to India’s request on this issue during his visit. This was a red line or a marker which Pakistan should have realised.

For Pakistan to say that these meetings had been taking place for two decades now is to miss the point that just because something unacceptable was happening in the past doesn’t mean it will be allowed to happen in the future. That the Hurriyat meetings were always a red rag to India was known to Pakistan. Successive Indian governments had voiced their displeasure over these meetings. In any case, even Pakistan knows that the Hurriyat has nothing to offer or contribute and these meetings are more symbolic than substantive.

Similarly, the Indian decision to call off the talks was also a symbolic move -- a substantive one would have been to send the Pakistan High Commissioner back home -- laying down markers for Pakistan to respect India’s sensitivities. Just as the Pakistani side has its political compulsions, so too does the Indian side. Unless these sensitivities and compulsions are respected by both sides, things will not move forward, at least that’s the message.

Those in India carping about the decision on grounds that if India had to call off the talks then it should have been done over the LoC firing are really quibbling not over the decision but only over the reason, which is clear dissembling on their part. This doesn’t mean that India is not ready to talk about Kashmir; only that when it talks Kashmir, these talks will not be held only on Pakistan’s terms.

The big question is what trajectory relations between the two countries will now take from here on. Clearly, from the Indian perspective, things don’t look too good. The LoC firing incidents have certainly soured the mood. If this is about testing the resolve of the Modi government, then Pakistan is once again making a terrible miscalculation. The sense in India is that Pakistan will now ratchet up violence, first in the Kashmir Valley and then in the rest of India through ‘non-state’ actors. With ‘banned’ organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad becoming active once again, India’s suspicions about Pakistan are only increasing.

If there is now a spike in violence, it could easily result in unintended consequences, more so because with Nawaz Sharif weakening considerably, India doesn’t have a credible civilian interlocutor in Pakistan anymore. Even with Nawaz Sharif, there were not many takers in India for cutting him any slack or accommodating his concerns without any reciprocity because this would mean allowing Pakistan to continue playing good-cop-bad-cop with India. There was also a growing sense that while Nawaz Sharif said all the right things, he wasn’t quite able to stop the ‘boys’ from doing what they do. There was very little, if anything at all, in terms of tangibles that Nawaz Sharif delivered -- even the trade initiative, which is not a concession or a gesture, remains stillborn.

In many ways then, India-Pakistan relations are back on the tenterhooks (as if they were ever off them). Last year, when Nawaz Sharif won an overwhelming verdict, India was saddled with a lame-duck government; now when India has a powerful Prime Minister, the civilian government in Pakistan has been effectively neutered. Not until there is some semblance of political clarity and/or stability in Pakistan, it is unlikely that there will be any meaningful engagement possible. Until then, it would do Pakistan well to stop testing India and figure out which of the menus outlined above it wants to take up.

Either carrot or stick