The joint statement of the Director Generals of Military Operations of India and Pakistan, reiterating their commitment to a “strict observance” of all agreements and cease-fire along the Line of Control, has come at a time when few had expected a fresh thaw in bilateral relations. While expectedly innocuous in its wording — and the product of intense back-channel negotiations — the decision to give peace with Pakistan a fresh chance clearly has the personal imprimatur of Prime Minister Narendra Modi stamped on it.
Even contrarians will admit that not since Indira Gandhi has an Indian Prime Minister had the political authority or the diplomatic flexibility to offer a new regional framework to Pakistan and the rest of the neighbourhood: A genuine chance at building a “security community” in South Asia. A security community is defined as one where the states of the region have agreed, at the very least, not to use violence to settle any of their bilateral conflicts.
The alternative for the neighbourhood is to live with the consequences of a hostile India that will continue to escalate the costs of non-cooperation. Indeed, it is the nimbleness with which New Delhi is able to switch from “carrots” to “sticks” and vice versa that has become the hallmark of the Modi foreign policy doctrine.
Consider this: A Modi who has the chutzpah to arrive at Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s grand-daughter’s wedding at Sharif ‘s Raiwind residence outside Lahore in 2015, on his way back from Kabul, is also someone who ordered surgical strikes against terrorist camps across the LoC in 2016 following the terrorist attacks at Uri. Later, in 2019, the PM also approved the airstrikes against the JEM in Balakot in POK as a response to the Jaish’s Fedayeen attack at Pulwama and he declared, “Hamara siddhant hai, hum ghar mein ghus ke marenge (it is our principle to take the attack to the adversary’s home)”.
Be that as it may, the DGMO statement is an important confidence-building measure in itself, since the number of reported violations of the cease-fire across the Line of Control had dramatically increased in the last year. The collateral damage as a consequence of firing impacts particularly the most vulnerable sections of the communities living close to the LoC and other sectors, and they will be the immediate beneficiaries if the statement is implemented in letter and spirit. But, hopefully, this move is also the first step towards a gradual normalisation of diplomatic relations, which had gone into a tailspin after the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019.
It would be shortsighted for cynics to view New Delhi’s commitment to cease fire as driven by pressure from the new Biden administration in the US — as street gossip would have it. From New Delhi’s perspective, peace on the border and better relations with Pakistan are rooted in the strategic logic of a country that is mostly satisfied with the status quo and wants a stable neighbourhood. And, in the past in the early 1990s, if pressure from the Clinton administration with a hostile Robin Raphel (as its point person for South Asia) could not move a much weaker India under PV Narasimha Rao to concede ground on Kashmir, it is unlikely to happen in Modi’s India.
But unlike other recent governments, the Modi regime could turn belligerently revanchist if its benign acceptance of the status quo is viewed as a weakness by Islamabad or the GHQ in Rawalpindi. For the Modi government, therefore, a calm summer in Jammu and Kashmir (without attempts at disruption by Islamabad) would be one test of Pakistan’s strategic commitment to rebuilding bilateral relations. There are early signs that the leadership in Pakistan, which includes the army, is beginning to see the futility of a confrontationist course with India, and it is in New Delhi’s interest to strengthen these tendencies by offering incentives that include the promise of a robust engagement.
If bilateral relations were to return to even keel, we could witness a SAARC summit in Islamabad later this year (not held since 2016 as a consequence of the Uri attacks). It is here that Prime Minister Modi could unveil his vision for South Asia. Even contrarians will admit that India’s neighbourhood policy, a cause for despair even a few weeks ago, has acquired a new alacrity and generated a sense of hope that Neighbourhood First will not remain an empty slogan. A curtain-raiser of the blueprint is in the vaccine maitri initiative (to make the anti-COVID-19 vaccine freely available to even the most marginal groups in the neighbourhood) that has become the most potent instrument of India’s soft power across the region. Similarly, a possible Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement that could be signed during Modi’s visit to Bangladesh next month, could become a template for the whole region. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s speech in Colombo recently suggests that the constituency in Pakistan for such an approach may be larger than most imagined.
But the two pillars of connectivity and collaboration rest on the basic commitment to building a security community which owes its conceptual origins to the German political scientist Karl Deutsch. An explicit commitment by Islamabad to not use violence (especially through non-state actors) as an instrument of its statecraft would be essential for the advancement of this objective, and indeed, for constructing a peaceful, prosperous and purposeful South Asia.
Nearly 50 years ago, in July 1971, the American President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, feigned a stomach upset in Islamabad, to travel secretly to Beijing to secure a new entente with China. Only a deeply conservative President Nixon (who had once called on the silent majority of Americans to seek national solidarity in the war against Vietnam) could make the opening to China. Nixon and the opening to China has since become a classic case study for students of foreign policy. Islamabad, too, could do well to learn from this history and realise that in today’s India only Narendra Modi can deliver on the promise of a sustainable detente with Pakistan.
The writer is professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and former member of the National Security Council’s Advisory Board.