Despite the criticism that it was more of a monologue, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent interview provided important insights into the man and his policies. Nowhere did they appear more problematic than when he spoke about Pakistan.
In response to a question as to why cross-border terrorism had not stopped despite the so-called surgical strikes two years ago, he declared that it would “take more time for Pakistan to mend its ways”. He attacked those criticising the surgical strikes for speaking “the language of Pakistan”, said that terrorism and dialogue could not go together, and claimed that India had “managed to isolate Pakistan on the global arena”.
Coming from a politician about to go into an election some of this was understandable, but coming from the PM who should have led a coherent policy towards a country which is arguably the biggest foreign policy challenge to India, it was disappointing.
In 2014 and 2015, Modi’s approach to Pakistan veered from warm embraces to sudden put-downs. The next two years, 2016 and 2017, saw hot exchanges: cross-border attacks, surgical strikes, loud campaign to push for a comprehensive convention on international terrorism (CCIT) and “isolate” Pakistan.
None of this worked, so in 2018, things cooled down, New Delhi sought to curb cross-border violence and agreed to implement the 2003 ceasefire accord. There was another edition of the farcical process when India agreed to a dialogue and then called it off. Later in the year, India and Pakistan agreed to create a corridor from India to Gurdwara Darbar Saheb, where Guru Nanak lived for the last 18 years of his life, in what is now Pakistan. On Thursday, Modi claimed ownership for the initiative which, we all know, has had a somewhat more jaded history.
Just how policies did not work out is best brought out by the surgical strikes. They were meant to deter cross-border attacks. But they did not. Just two months after, there was a far more serious attack in Nagrota, the headquarters of 16 Corps. India did not react. Neither was there any response to a Jaish attack on Sunjuwan camp near Jammu in 2018. As for Pakistani BAT attacks, they have been going on constantly, the most recent being the failed one of December 30. After publicising and hyping the surgical strikes, India needed to respond to every attack, if it wanted to reinforce deterrence.
For the record, whatever the PM may say now, it was his party that has politicised the action, first by disclosing it, then by using it in the UP elections, and confirmed this by celebrating what is a relatively minor military action as a ‘Surgical Strike Day’ across universities and educational institutions.
The consequences of the failure of the Pakistan policy are many. There are opportunity costs to be paid for the constant tension on our western borders and for our failure to integrate South Asia into a single economic area. As of now, New Delhi appears to have no intelligible policy response to the current developments in Afghanistan. The Sino-Pak axis continues to gather strength, now expanding outwards in the Arabian Sea.
Sure, as the PM says, Pakistan is not going to change overnight because of war or some surgical strike. Change can only come through a careful and consistent combination of policies that encourage good behaviour and penalise the bad. It also requires patient diplomacy involving third parties – China, Saudi Arabia, the US or Russia. But most of all it needs an understanding that change has to come from within Pakistan itself. You cannot shift the behaviour of a country which you demonise for domestic political purposes.
Managing Pakistan effectively is a pre-condition for India’s putative rise. Modi is not wrong when he says it will take time for Pakistan to change. But smart policy would make that time shorter, rather than doing things that is stretching it, unconscionably, far into the future.
This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.