Considering that the Lok Sabha election was fought under the shadow of the Pulwama suicide blast and the Balakot reciprocation, Indo-Pak relations have receded from public attention. But the question persists as to what is likely to be the Pakistan policy of the Narendra Modi government in its new avatar.
Having whipped up public hysteria, the government has to first find a way to dismount the anti-Pakistan jingoism tiger. The cycle of India-Pakistan talks that began with PM I.K. Gujral in 1998, starting the Comprehensive Dialogue which continued during subsequent regimes of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, has run its course. Although Mr Modi, despite condemning, in his electioneering speeches, the 2013-14 Manmohan Singh regime’s pro-engagement and pacifist approach towards Pakistan, episodically did try engaging his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif during his last term. Post the Burhan Wani killing in 2016, which triggered a fresh cycle of popular protests and instability, Mr Modi shelved his Pakistan wooing policy. Pakistan, too, worsened the trust deficit with India by stirring the Kashmir valley trouble through words and deed. As a result, the “zero tolerance” of terror mantra of the Modi regime took root and became the dominant theme of the India-Pak relationship. Post the Uri attack, a retaliatory “surgical attack” was undertaken and became the template for future action against Pakistan. The Congress greeted it with scepticism, arguing that such attacks had been conducted by their past governments, albeit without a publicity blitz to avoid internationalisation of the Kashmir problem. The Opposition missed the emerging signs of a more aggressive and punitive policy vis-a-vis Pakistan. Mr Modi averred that earlier UPA governments had, even after the high-intensity Mumbai train bombings in 2006 and the large scale 26/11 Mumbai attacks in 2008, avoided calibrated punitive action. Of course, the logic of this criticism also applied to the Kargil intrusion in 1999 and the attack on Indian parliament in 2001. But the BJP naturally avoided lambasting failures of the Vajpayee regime.
After each earlier attack, the Indian governments returned to the dialogue track after periods of disengagement and dissonance. But the Modi government’s strategy of linking any resumption of dialogue to verifiable ending of terror sponsorship by Pakistan now hardened progressively with each subsequent attack. With the approaching Indian parliamentary election, the muscular national security doctrine was tying nicely into the BJP’s electoral strategy. The Modi government was also unwilling to risk any new peace overture towards Pakistan as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was marginalised and eventually replaced by Imran Khan, who seemed to have the support if not sponsorship of the Pakistani Army. With average economic performance, rural economic distress and tepid jobs growth, the BJP realised that it needed to tap into public ire over Pakistan’s unending abetment of terror. The Pulwama attack was thus not only gross intelligence failure and a human tragedy but equally a match that lit public fury by dint of its sheer brutality. But it was still hardly of the scale of earlier attacks like 26/11. Still, two things had changed. The United States was now under President Donald Trump who was isolationist by instinct and already frustrated by Pakistani duplicity over Afghanistan and, therefore, quite happy to sit on his hands while India extracted revenge. Secondly, the Modi government was itself implementing a new eye-for-an-eye doctrine. Thus a retaliatory attack was undertaken on an alleged jihadi training school in Balakot. The Pakistani counterattack and shooting down of the Indian MiG-21 and capture and return of a pilot simply burnished the image of Prime Minister Modi as a fearless defender of India and crusader against terror.
The Pakistan policy of the current government in New Delhi naturally flows from these events. The unwillingness to engage Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit at Bishkek meant that India was waiting to see how irreversible the steps were that were being undertaken by Pakistan to dismantle the jihadi network under the constant pressure of Financial Action Task Force (FATF). The squeezing of Pakistan by its retention on the gray list with threat of moving it to the blacklist has created an opportunity. However, Chinese assumption of its headship may embolden Pakistan to regress. On a parallel track, the US-Taliban talks appear to be reaching a final phase. But the elected Afghan government stands marginalised while Pakistani interests are safeguarded by a lead role for the Taliban. A third fly in the ointment would be the likely verdict by the International Court of Justice in the Indian case over denial of consular access to alleged Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav. Based on precedents, the court may rule in India’s favour, enjoining Pakistan to grant India consular access. Such a ruling would in effect render the military trial and conviction of Jadhav null and void. Pakistan would have the option of a retrial post Indian consular access, raising the possibility of India learning the true version of events from Jadhav. Alternatively, Pakistan may defy the ICJ and execute the prisoner with or without granting India consular access. The latter action is likely to exacerbate tensions with India.
Meanwhile Indo-Pak talks have been scheduled on the Kartarpur Corridor, to enable Sikh pilgrims to visit Guru Nanak’s last place of religious work and residence on his 500th birth anniversary. Again, Pakistan can be accommodative and make it a corridor of friendship or allow it to degenerate into another point of discord. Pakistani army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa has his term ending later this year. If he is angling for an extension, heightened tensions with India would be a useful pretext.
A fitful monsoon and uncertain relations with Pakistan spell a long and sultry summer. But Islamabad has to understand that there is a new and yet-nebulous Pakistan doctrine of preemptive or punitive action by New Delhi that Modi 2.0 is unlikely to abandon. This implies keeping a watchful eye, punishment in case of provocation but otherwise ignoring engagement with Pakistan, particularly resumption of dispute resolution through dialogue. However, conflicts can hardly be kept frozen in time, especially when historically the Pakistani army tends to regroup under pressure and relaunch a fresh onslaught to try altering the status quo over Kashmir. Hopefully, it would digest the lesson that it is now dealing with a new and less risk-averse India....