Zorawar Daulet Singh: Indo-Pak relations and the journey to Neverland

Realistic statecraft, not emotion must become the guiding principle of India's Pakistan policy

Zorawar Daulet Singh

The decision to call off the foreign secretary talks is an apt moment for Delhi to scrutinise recent history and re-craft a Pakistan policy that is both realistic and modest in its ambitions.

In the late 1990s, India began a rendezvous with Pakistan whose after-effects still echo in our national discourse. Perhaps, historians with the benefit of time and access to archives will discover the inner deliberations at the apex level that produced what to the naked eye seemed a policy based on hope rather than on leverage and strategy.

Nevertheless, it is possible to deconstruct the essence of the Pakistan policy that began with the National Democratic Alliance and was extrapolated passionately by the United Progressive Alliance regimes after 2004. The first element of this policy was that India must introduce a new approach to Pakistan, one based on non-reciprocity rather than a transactional approach that characterises even the most normal bilateral relationships. But the envisaged grand transformation was always high on rhetoric and short on logic to justify such an asymmetric approach.

Let's explore the underlying assumptions that persuaded experienced policymakers from both sides of the aisle to internalise a particular Pakistan policy. The first assumption was that India could not emerge as a prosperous and meaningful regional power without solving its Pakistan problem. Curiously, this idea was accepted without fully explicating the argument. Was it about guns versus butter, and, that a South Asian entente would release resources for India's socio-economic transformation? With one of the lowest military budgets as a percentage of gross domestic product among states that do not rely on an alliance system for security, this was hardly about money. India's developmental failures have nothing to do with Pakistan. Never was any empirical evidence offered to explain why a weak Pakistan stood in the path of India's rise.

Second, was it about improving relations with the great powers? Perhaps, there is something to this. Since the 1950s, there has been a perception in India's policymaking elite that a normalised equation with Pakistan was a pre-requisite to more positive and strategic relations with Pakistan's benefactors in the West. The experience immediately after the 1962 war reinforced such a perception. The Kennedy administration sought to link its military assistance with a transformation in India-Pakistan relations, and particularly, on the Kashmir issue. Although India-Pakistan talks broke down by the summer of 1963, largely on account of Pakistani irredenta, this must have left an enduring impression on the Indian mind: that ties with the West and Pakistan went hand-in-hand.

After 1998, was there such a belief that India could not alter its equation with the West if it didn't simultaneously re-define its national interests vis-à-vis Pakistan? India's policy behaviour holds some clues, and, it may not be controversial to assert that India's Pakistan policy - both how Delhi dealt with the Kashmir issue at home, and its Afghan policy - was linked to a wider strategic tango with Washington. The Sharm-el-Sheikh 2009 joint statement was the apogee of this policy framework although its conceptual edifice was destroyed after the Mumbai attacks in 2008, as national backlash and political realism finally pulled the plug on this decade-long venture. For a variety of reasons, however, Delhi could not conceptualise a new framework after 2008. Narendra Modi's campaign assertion that cross-border violence and talks could not proceed simultaneously was, in fact, a shared belief among the majority of India's political spectrum.

Finally, let's explore a compelling assumption that underlies every conversation on India's Pakistan policy. The idea of a civil-military cleavage within Pakistan has been internalised by much of India's strategic community. Engaging the civilian leadership, it is argued, will gradually weaken the military superstructure, upon which rests Pakistan's securitised state, and, the antagonism it fuels for its own survival.

There are, however, two more assumptions that must hold for the primary thesis to work. First, that a civilian supremacy within Pakistan, albeit a long shot, would dramatically alter Pakistan's national interests. Second, and more importantly, civil-military cleavages would cross a threshold whereby the idea of Pakistan as the anti-thesis of India would be seriously challenged by an alternative.

Yet, there is negligible empirical evidence to suggest that the civilian political upsurge in recent years is willing and capable of re-defining Pakistan's post-partition identity towards a positive nationhood. What Pakistan's dynamic suggests is a more complex picture. Civilian structures are acquiring powers but not nearly enough as to emasculate the military establishment but yet sufficient to present itself as a legitimising force for the entire elite. Therefore, while it is plausible to expect limited power re-distribution in Pakistan, there might also be a parallel dynamic whereby the civil and military elite are learning to divide labour in both domestic and foreign affairs. It is simply absurd to posit that India from the outside could alter this complex and evolving balance of power in its favour without a massive intrusive attempt at socialising Pakistan.

What was always a tactical process for Pakistan was viewed by Indian elites as a journey to the Neverland. But there was never any endgame with Pakistan. There could not be. The dichotomy of identity - a militarised Islamic state versus a secular democratic republic - cannot be overcome with neoliberal rationalism. It can, however, be moderated and contained and perhaps gradually channeled to constructive spheres such as trade. This, however, requires statecraft and not emotion as the guiding principle for a Pakistan policy. It will always take two hands to clap, and, it would be the biggest self-deception of all for India to arrogate to itself a civilising mission for Pakistan, a project imagined as the negation of India.

Delhi should persist with Modi's opening May 26 gambit of projecting a regional policy that does not crowd out India's other neighbours at the expense of hyping Pakistan's role in the future of South Asia.

The writer is a foreign affairs analyst and a research scholar at King's College London