By Ashok Malik*
In the past few days, there has been a flurry of India-Pakistan activity. The arrival of a Pakistani investigative team, comprising officers of multiple agencies in that country, including of the infamous Inter-Services Intelligence, to examine the site of the January 2016 terrorist attack at the Pathankot air base is fairly unprecedented.
True, Pakistani investigators have come earlier in connection with collecting evidence for the trial of those accused of masterminding the 26/11 attacks. Indeed, just after the November 26, 2008 terror strike in Mumbai, the then civilian leadership in Pakistan had reportedly agreed with the Indian government, then under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, to send the ISI Director-General to help assess the incriminatory material. Subsequently, the generals in Rawalpindi objected and the ISI chief didn’t make the trip.
Despite this backdrop, it has to be said that the visit of a Pakistani delegation of this nature to an air base would have been unimaginable even a few weeks ago. The Defence Ministry’s instincts were not in it, and obviously a larger foreign policy calculation by Prime Minister Narendra Modi came into play. This has led to the piquant situation of the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party accusing the Modi government of being soft on Pakistan, but that need not detain us here.
What is the Modi government attempting? Is this latest manoeuvre part of an up-and-down Pakistan policy going back to its earliest days, in the summer of 2014? Is it consistent with a more recent approach, visible at least since the first week of December 2015? In either case, is it managing to communicate its thinking to a domestic constituency? All of these are important questions.
The government’s Pakistan diplomacy can be divided into two substantive phases – from August 2014 to December 2015, and from December 2015 to now. The first phase was unpredictable and confusing. The government was trapped by the rhetoric of its “red lines” – of not allowing Pakistani officials to meet the Hurriyat leadership before a bilateral engagement.
Rather than a bargaining chip, that demand became an end in itself. In the medium-term, it proved counter-productive. India offered no resolution or carrot of meaningful talks that the Pakistani government could sell at home if the Hurriyat was kept out of the frame. Eventually, India came to be seen as unwilling to talk to Pakistan and pressure built up.
The impasse was broken when the two National Security Advisers (NSAs) met in Bangkok on December 6, 2015, accompanied by the two Foreign Secretaries. The NSAs agreed to cooperate on terrorism and intelligence sharing. Pakistan got India back to the table. The Modi government was able to establish the primacy of terrorism as the overriding issue in the India-Pakistan relationship.
Since then, India has sought to make a public demonstration of its investment in the NSA-level anti-terror mechanism, including in a reasonable and mature response to the Pathankot attacks. The diversity of voices on Pakistan in the BJP and the government has gradually given way to a calibrated articulation. Of course, it is also possible that having agreed to the Bangkok mechanism, the Indian side is keen to show success, irrespective of actual gains. The willingness to host a Pakistani investigative team in Pathankot is probably part of that effort.
Having said that, all this can only be a short-term proposition. At some stage, either there is an incremental leap, or the process simply falls flat. Having fought off domestic doubters and agreed to the Pakistani visit to a frontline air base, the Modi government would feel it has established its credentials. In diplomatic terms, it has recouped the capital it had lost with its insistence on “red lines” and the puzzled response that policy had received internationally. It is now for Pakistan to up its game. Of course, the word “game” is used advisedly, as it can have multiple connotations.
India has asked Pakistan to reciprocate by allowing Indian investigators access to the Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist organisation and its leader, Masood Azhar. Telephone intercepts accepted by the Pakistani government have traced the Pathankot attack to Jaish seniors. Depending on which Pakistani interlocutor one chooses to quote, Masood Azhar, one of the three men released by India in Kandahar in December 1999, is either “missing” or in “custody” or in “protective custody” – the third being a delightfully vague expression that can mean anything from prison to preventive detention to a child in day-care. Whatever the reality, it is highly unlikely that Pakistan will agree to provide such access.
Here, the tussle between the Pakistan army and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also becomes a factor. By all accounts, it appears that Lt General Nasir Khan Janjua, the Pakistani NSA, is more Nawaz Sharif’s man than, as was perceived previously, a candidate of the army. If this is correct, it calls into question Rawalpindi’s commitment to the post-Bangkok process and the joint anti-terror conversation. Second, the Pakistani army is going through a transition that will see a new chief in place in November 2016. For this, it needs Nawaz Sharif to cooperate, but whether this gives the Pakistani Prime Minister any greater leverage in the coming months is unclear.
As far as the Modi government is concerned, the onus of taking forward the Pathankot investigation, the joint anti-terror mechanism and, more widely, bilateral discourse, is today on Pakistan. Its immediate test will be in the ability or willingness to provide access to the Jaish high command. Tactically, the Indian government would have obliterated the “red lines” mess of a year ago, which had put the onus of advance on India. Islamabad has sought to pre-empt this emerging situation by producing an alleged Indian spy, supposedly captured in Balochistan with his passport in his pocket.
So are both sides still playing tactics and looking for minor victories and – more so – trying to manage international headlines by accusing the other side of bad faith and of sabotaging the joint anti-terror mechanism. This would seem so. In Modi’s case, it may flow from a legitimate assumption that there is no political space for a massive strategic outreach to Pakistan, neither domestically nor in the context of the region (Afghanistan), and at least not till the transition in Pakistan’s army leads to some clarity.
Tactical moves can be converted to strategic moves by purposeful design or by dramatic events. Everything could change if a miracle occurred and Pakistan actually allowed Indian law officers to question Masood Azhar and his compatriots. As it happens, nobody is betting on that.
About the author:
*Ashok Malik is a Senior Fellow, and Head of ORF’s Neighbourhood Regional Studies Initiative. His work focuses on Indian domestic politics and foreign/trade policy, and their increasing interplay, as well as on the broader process of globalisation and how it is influencing policy choices in not just the economy but in social sector spheres such as health, education and urbanisation. A journalist for 20 years, Ashok is a columnist for several leading Indian and international publications (such as Times of India, Hindustan Times, YaleGlobal Online).
This article originally appeared in NDTV.