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Shyam Saran: A different dialogue this time round?

India must take the post-nuclear reality into account and devise an effective counter-strategy

Shyam Saran 

India and Pakistan agreed to resume comprehensive bilateral dialogue at their foreign secretaries’ meeting in Thimphu recently on February 6, 2011. This event has proved that we continue to be locked into a predictable pattern of “dialogue- disruption- dialogue”, which has characterised India-Pakistan relations for the past two decades and more. Every time the threads of engagement are picked up and advanced, there is a major terrorist attack on Indian targets traced back to Pakistan or a Kargil-type provocation. India responds by suspending bilateral dialogue. After a certain time interval and with Pakistan making familiar declarations of good intentions, dialogue is resumed until the next round in the same chain. Will this time be different? It may be worthwhile to examine the above pattern and relate it to other significant factors influencing India-Pakistan relations.

One, the overt declaration by India and Pakistan of their nuclear weapon status in 1998 was a key development whose significance for India-Pakistan relations has not been fully analysed and understood. An important determinant of Pakistani behaviour post-1998 was the test case of Kargil in 1999. In similar Pakistan incursions in 1965 and 1971 in Kashmir, India responded by enlarging military operations to other sectors of the India-Pakistan frontier. The prevailing doctrine was that if Pakistan meddled in Kashmir, India reserved the right to retaliate at any theatre of its choosing. This is what happened in 1965 and 1971. However, in response to Kargil, India limited its retaliatory operations to the Kashmir theatre, its political leadership even declaring publicly that we would not expand the area of conflict.

This display of restraint may have won kudos from the international community, but the conclusion Pakistan drew was that nuclear deterrence had worked to its advantage in preventing India from escalating armed conflict with Pakistan beyond the threshold set by Pakistan. Pakistan also believes, with good reason, that the US and China would act to reinforce Indian restraint.

Two, with this perception taking shape, Pakistan began to escalate the frequency and scale of cross-border terrorist attacks against Indian targets. In 2001, there was the horrific attack against Parliament which led to the “Parakrama” mobilisation of the Indian Army along the India-Pakistan border. This could have been the occasion to dispel the notion that India would not launch a ground attack across the border in response to a patent act of aggression against it. However, Parakrama never went beyond “coercive diplomacy” and it served to strengthen Pakistani belief that its nuclear assets had been successful in deterring India from any significant retaliation against Pakistani provocation.

Three, the next major escalation in Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism against India came with the 26/11 attack on Mumbai in 2008. Despite the scale and brazenness of the attack, India did not retaliate with military measures against Pakistan. In fact, even the gesture of “coercive diplomacy” resorted to earlier when the Indian Parliament was attacked, was missing from India’s quiver.

The uncomfortable truth is that nuclear deterrence, which is, at the end of the day, a state of mind rather than an operational reality, has been worked to its full advantage by Pakistan, while reducing our own space for manoeuvre against it. Pakistan has displayed strategic boldness in doing so. We have, by contrast, been on the defensive.

It is this perception that is also leading Pakistan’s strategic planners to work feverishly to augment and upgrade the country’s nuclear arsenal and its delivery capability. The objective appears to be to achieve a significant nuclear edge over India rather than maintain a rough parity. Pakistan may well believe that such numerical and qualitative edge over India will further reduce India’s willingness to risk a potentially escalatory encounter with Pakistan. Recent reports indicate that Pakistan has now more nuclear weapons than the UK and its new Khushab reactors will provide even more significant quantities of fissile material for a significantly expanded and growing nuclear arsenal. It is now clear why Pakistan has single-handedly held up multilateral negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT ), which India supports, at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, citing reasons of vital national interests.

It is a matter of argument whether India should have behaved differently than it did in the instances referred to. Every political leader has to weigh the pros and cons before taking decisions on war and peace and such decisions ought not be taken in haste or in a fit of impulsive anger. What is clear, however, is that we have not fully understood why we have been led into a defensive posture even though the distance between India and Pakistan, in terms of overall power, has been increasing. The answer lies in the fact that we have allowed a situation to develop where the choice to our political leadership is either to risk a war escalating to the nuclear threshold or to continue with the “dialogue-disruption-dialogue” approach with virtually nothing in-between. This inhibits us from addressing the strategic reality we are confronted with. We must have a more varied tool-kit to manage India-Pakistan relations than be left with only a binary choice.

India must take this post-nuclear reality into account and devise an effective counter-strategy, otherwise we risk the “dialogue-disruption-dialogue” pattern becoming further established but at progressively higher levels of escalation in cross-border terrorism or in conventional-type military provocations, but below the threshold of all-out armed attack across the border. An entire array of positive and negative levers, which have been talked about often but never seriously pursued, need to be put in place to influence and shape Pakistan behaviour, if we wish to see a departure from the current, uncomfortable reality. If the current dialogue is used as a platform to initiate this more nuanced approach to our relations, then things may be different this time round.

The author is a former foreign secretary and currently senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research

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First Published: Wed, February 16 2011. 00:40 IST