In January 2013, when the first cross-border skirmishes happened and beheadings of soldiers grabbed national headlines, vitriolic coverage by the vernacular media on both sides once again jeopardized the fragile peace by worsening an already tense atmosphere.

The vexed relationship between India and Pakistan has seen numerous peace initiatives go down the drain, with the peace process itself like a pendulum swinging back and forth. Years of negotiations have failed to deliver anything substantial value. The most recent peace initiative was the ‘Saree-Shawl diplomacy’ to build an atmosphere for a more conducive public opinion.  A picture-perfect moment to give a push to the dialogue process was once again derailed by cross-border firing and shelling and one that has seen escalation on both sides, a strategic surprise even for Pakistan.

Most subsequent assessments of Narendra Modi and his policy towards Pakistan have taken into account his appointment of Ajit Doval as the NSA (National Security Advisor), who is considered a hardliner on Pakistan and has articulated the need for ‘offensive defense’ to counter asymmetric warfare conducted under the auspices of a nuclear umbrella. These assessments might be true, but to Narendra Modi’s credit there was an initial thrust from his side to bolster cooperation in South Asia after his election as the Prime Minister of India. It is interesting that Narendra Modi was the one to take the first step by inviting Nawaz Sharif for his swearing in ceremony.

During his election campaign, Narendra Modi unleashed forces of nationalism to bolster his candidacy, however, after his election – despite the huge mandate his party received – it is these same forces that give him less room to maneuver on issues pertaining to Pakistan. With Nawaz Sharif’s government in a precarious position (besieged by Imran Khan, Tahir-ul-Qadri, and their cohorts; a petrol crisis that called an elected government’s efficacy into question; and a worsening internal security situation that does not help Pakistan one bit), Narendra Modi realizes that Nawaz Sharif is not in a position to settle or find a resolution to the dispute – and more importantly, he cannot give India the incentives to engage in a dialogue process which would lead to some sort of fruition, or one that Modi can sell to his domestic crowd. These incentives would be the much talked about Most Favored Nation (MFN) status and an assurance of no terror attacks. Modi was cautious from the start; even though he stressed the optics, he nonetheless went on to appoint Ajit Doval as the NSA. During his election rallies, Modi had promised little tolerance for acts of terror while criticizing the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime for engaging in dialogue even as terror and cross-border attacks continued. He now has to toe the line he advocated so fiercely during the election season unless there are some high-value incentives from the other side to not do so.

It is important here to take a step back and look at history and the broader strategic picture and its consequences for South Asia. Historically, the 1966 Tashkent Declaration came after the India-Pakistan war of 1965; the 1972 Simla Agreement after the war of 1971; the February 1999 Lahore Declaration after the testing of nuclear devices by the two countries; the 2001 Agra Summit after the Kargil conflict of 1999; the Composite Dialogue process was pursued with some seriousness only in April 2003, after the attack on Indian Parliament on 13 December 2001 led to the Operation Parakram through late 2002. Each time, only a crisis situation or a military confrontation (and the consequential nudging by the international community) could induce the parties to engage in fresh negotiations and diplomacy to resolve bilateral disputes.

The 2008 Mumbai attack was a break from this routine, however, in that the Composite Dialogue was progressing reasonably well until the attack took place; disaster was averted because of the hectic diplomacy by the United States and other major powers. But it still was a game-changer in the sense that it convinced at least the Indian right that engaging in negotiations would not necessarily prevent cross-border attacks. More importantly it has very significantly, if not decisively, reduced the appetite within the Indian masses for pursuing peace with Pakistan.

One of the rare successes of the Composite Dialogue process was the 2003 ceasefire agreement. This was a very important confidence-building measure but the sanctity of this agreement has come into question with the recent bout of cross-border skirmishes and escalation in firing from both sides. Adherence to the ceasefire can unfortunately not be ensured by the Directors General of Military Operations (DGMOs) because this is not a tactical issue, but a strategic one. There are broader policy objectives that both sides are trying to accomplish – done by opting for coercive choices. India’s suspension of talks after the Pakistani envoy met the separatist leadership in India – a surprise to Pakistan – was reflective of the fact Narendra Modi senses the less-than favorable public opinion towards pursuing peace with Pakistan when Nawaz Sharif himself is facing a daunting task back home.

Unfortunately this realism on the part of Narendra Modi and his (perhaps correct) assessment of Nawaz Sharif’s limited ability to deliver does not bode well for the subcontinent. New Delhi has achieved its aim of politically isolating Pakistan on the international stage with the exception of China on the Kashmir issue; the U.S. rebalancing in the Asia-Pacific has ensured that New Delhi will not be pressured by the United States and can deal with Pakistan at least with regard to Kashmir on terms it deems fit.

Almost simultaneously, the asymmetric conflict has expanded to new theaters with Afghanistan becoming a contentious issue between the two sides as well.  Pakistan is dissatisfied with the status quo, and has historically shown a commitment to change it to press India for negotiations. Traditionally deployed methods have ranged from raising the Kashmir issue on international platforms, to arresting fishermen and resorting to cross-border shelling or increased infiltration attempts at the Line of Control (LoC). The escalatory cross-border skirmishes and drawing of new red lines for talks will be construed by Pakistan as India’s being unwilling to talk. Now with the ceasefire agreement coming into question, if the traditional options don’t work for Pakistan one does not know what it portends for the cold peace on the subcontinent.

Pakistan and India both can ill-afford one more attack on India emanating from Pakistan whether or not those involved are state actors. If Pakistan’s options of bringing India to the table whittle away it does not portend well for the region, because sooner or later something drastic must happen and historical trends indicate the probability of a crisis is far greater than a grand overture of peace.


Image: Asif Hassan-AFP, Getty 

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