One of the major changes in Indian diplomacy in the last eight years has been the way Delhi deals or does not deal with Pakistan. India’s approach today is very different from the framework that emerged at the dawn of the 1990s. If Pakistan came from a fresh victory in Afghanistan, having ousted the Russian forces who had occupied the country for a decade, India found itself at one of its most vulnerable moments.
For nearly three decades, it was Pakistan that had the political initiative. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has begun to reset the terms of the engagement agenda. Meanwhile, the regional and international context has also altered in many ways since the early 1990s essentially in India’s favour. Even more important, realists say, is the changing balance of power between India and Pakistan that was bound to alter the nature of their bilateral relations.
After the Cold War, Pakistan loomed large, very large, over Indian foreign policy. The turmoil in Kashmir, the international focus on nuclear proliferation, and the relentless external pressure for a sustained dialogue with Pakistan put Delhi in a difficult situation. If Pakistan was on the political offensive, a series of weak coalition governments in Delhi were forced onto the back foot.
At the heart of Pakistan’s ambition was to change the status quo in Jammu and Kashmir with a three-pronged strategy — violent destabilization of Kashmir while raising human rights concerns in global forums, reopen the Kashmir question that India believed was settled after the 1971 war, and leverage global nuclear concerns to force Indian concessions on Kashmir. Islamabad often set preconditions for talks with India. Pakistan demanded India improve its human rights record in Kashmir. It wanted to bring militant groups in Kashmir into a three-cornered negotiating table with India, insisted on meetings with the Hurriyat leaders whenever its officials visited India, and sought to prevent India’s military modernisation in the name of arms control. Islamabad also played up to the concerns in Western chancelleries that the conflict in Kashmir might escalate to the nuclear level. The new international consensus that Kashmir is the “world’s most dangerous nuclear flashpoint” aligned well with Pakistan’s strategy.
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Any chess player would have recognised that India was in a perfect Zugzwang — Delhi had no option but to respond, but any move to counter Pakistan would make the situation worse. Responding with military force against Pakistan’s provocative terror attacks, for example, would invite the fear of nuclear escalation and intervention by the great powers demanding a resolution in Kashmir. A vigorous approach to cross-border terror would put India in the crosshairs of international human rights groups.
Successive prime ministers — PV Narasimha Rao, HD Deve Gowda, IK Gujral, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and Manmohan Singh — ducked and weaved domestic amidst the relentless international, regional and pressures on the Pakistan question. The Indian foreign office was at its defensive best in fending off external pressures on Kashmir, nuclear and Pakistan questions while incrementally expanding the diplomatic wiggle room.
Cricket enthusiasts might want to compare India’s diplomatic resilience to Rahul Dravid facing furious fast bowling with skill and a calm demeanour. Older cricket fans will remember the 1960s spinner Bapu Nadkarni who could bowl endless maiden overs yielding nothing to the opposition.
India’s transformed relations with the US, the resolution of Delhi’s dispute with the global nuclear order, and getting the West to discard its temptation to mediate on Kashmir enormously improved India’s diplomatic position. But the most consequential change has been in the economic domain.
As Indian governments kept their heads down while laying the foundations for robust economic growth, Pakistan trapped itself in a grand geopolitical obsession to expand its strategic depth into Afghanistan and redefine the nature of its relations with India. The persistent neglect of economic challenges left Pakistan in an increasingly weaker position in relation to India. If India has inched its way into the top six global business, Pakistan today is broke.
Modi had the opportunity to build on these shifting fortunes of Delhi and Islamabad and develop a three-pronged strategy of his own.
First, Modi bet that the heavens won’t fall if Delhi stops talking to Islamabad or negotiating with Pakistan-backed militant groups in Kashmir. Modi insists that he will talk on his own terms and when he wants to. Difficult conditions compelled Modi’s predecessors to negotiate under pressure. The conditions are now in India’s favour.
Second, Delhi has been unafraid of staring at nuclear escalation in responding to Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism. Sceptics will question if Modi’s cross-border raids on the sources of terror have enhanced India’s deterrence. But it is Delhi that now leverages international fears about nuclear escalation to compel Pakistan to rein in terror groups. India’s campaign has also resulted in greater international scrutiny of Pakistan’s support for terrorism.
Third, by changing the constitutional status of Kashmir in 2019, Modi has reduced the scope of India’s future negotiations with Pakistan on Kashmir.
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India is certainly not refusing to engage Pakistan. When it negotiated a ceasefire agreement with Pakistan in February 2021, it agreed to reopen talks on Kashmir. But it strategy is Pakistan that is divided on its negotiating. Should it insist on India reversing all the 2019 constitutional changes in Kashmir or should it be satisfied with a few minor concessions?
In early 2021, the Pakistan Army was signaling flexibility on Kashmir and on renewing trade links with India. But Imran Khan overruled the change. The Shehbaz Sharif government, which is struggling to find its feet, is simply repeating Imran’s line that no engagement with India is possible unless it “reverses” the 2019 constitutional changes in Kashmir. We probably have not heard the last from Islamabad on this.
With Imran Khan running riot, the old political elites on the defensive, and the current army chief General Qamar Jawed Bajwa set to retire in a few months, it might be premature for Delhi to hope for greater flexibility in Pakistan. But the parlous state of its economy and a weakened diplomatic position might encourage Pakistan to rethink its India policies. While India waits for things to settle down in Islamabad, it could consider taking a fresh look at its Pakistan strategy. Critics will surely question the effectiveness of Modi’s three-pronged policy. But there is no doubt that Pakistan’s hand today is much weaker than in the 1990s and Delhi’s room for manoeuvring has grown, notwithstanding the challenges it confronts on the China border. That opens some room for new Indian initiatives toward Pakistan. Having played hardball with Pakistan in the last few years, can Modi take chances with a forward-looking strategy? Getting Pakistan’s army and its political class to be more practical in engaging India is certainly a tall order; but Delhi can afford to make a move.
Modi has shown that he can take bold steps when he wants — he invited Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif to attend his inauguration in 2014 and dashed on short notice to land in Lahore to visit Sharif’s family home at the end of 2015. While there can be much disagreement on Pakistan’s capacity to respond, Delhi’s new initiatives can reinforce the positive evolution of Indian foreign policy, and expand the space for Indian diplomacy in the region and beyond.
The writer is senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, New Delhi and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express