21 Apr India’s Pakistan Policy?
By Anjum Altaf
What exactly is India’s Pakistan policy? For years (decades, really) I have puzzled this over without being able to discern anything coherent. True, I am not privy to the inner councils of the Indian establishment but backward induction from observed actions does not seem to suggest I am grossly mistaken.
The Pakistani establishment, by contrast, has a very clear India policy: keep the pot boiling, engineering an incident when needed; bleed by a thousand cuts with the bleeding outsourced to third parties; shore up domestic support by transforming education and information into indoctrination; and minimize public contact across borders to prevent any erosion of the mythology.
India’s policy, at best, could be characterized as a reactive tit-for-tat illustrated poignantly by the exchange of helpless fishermen released from time to time by both sides after having languished pointlessly in jails for years. Yes, there is back-channel diplomacy, the occasional handshake over cricket, and citizen vigils but these hardly count as policy.
The question remains: what explains this lack of policy? I suppose one could find a rationale of the mindless tit-for-tat until, say, the end of the 1980s, in the general perception of equivalence between two poor countries but for the fact that India had six times as many people. That, however, is no longer the case – the trajectories have diverged markedly since then with India aspiring to be key global player within the century and Pakistan floundering to save itself from itself.
Clearly, or so it would seem, India needs a Pakistan policy that would resolve the chaos in its neighborhood and enable it to reallocate its efforts and resources to claiming the prizes so tantalizingly within its grasp. But signs of a new policy remain far from visible. I reflected on this again last year on the occasion of an address by the Indian Foreign Secretary to an audience in Washington, DC; the most charitable characterization I could manage of the articulation of India’s Pakistan policy was hawkish bluster.
Had there really been a debate in India regarding the options that could be adopted vis a vis Pakistan, I wondered, and had the hawkish option emerged as the one likely to be the most effective?
The only change I detected from past pronouncements was an outcome of the US-led War on Terror but even this, I felt, was not fully thought through. India, it was claimed, was just as much a target of terrorism as was the US and thereby just as entitled to carry the fight to the terrorists. That was fine as far as it went but the US could retreat ten thousand miles inside its borders if the strategy failed to deliver; India had no such option.
Was it really the case that there were no smarter alternatives that would serve India’s interests better? That could not be the case and, indeed, a few months later I did come across an opinion that could provide an adequate point of departure for the exercise. The opinion (cogently titled ‘What do you do with a problem like Pakistan?’) was expressed on Centre-Right India, a website ‘directed towards nurturing an intellectually vibrant right-of-centre tradition in India.’
Starting with a statement of the obvious (‘India almost seems to be at its wits ends as to how it should tackle this problem, but let it be frankly said, that India has never taken a dispassionate look at the options it has in this area’), it lays out a maximalist position (encourage a Pakistan splintered into four smaller states) and posits the following steps, in summary, to work towards a solution:
- Cause economic pain to defense forces/related entities
- Offer to pay this mercenary nation for better behavior
- Reach out to the suffering masses
- Denuclearize this rabid state
- Increase focus on fissures within Pakistan
- Resolve Kashmir
- Threaten to break all diplomatic relations
- Provide a face to India’s Pakistan initiative
One doesn’t have to subscribe to the maximalist position or point out that some steps might be at cross-purposes to appreciate a number of key conceptual advances in this suggestion. First, it clearly rests on a pragmatic argument of self-interest; second, it employs a mix of carrots and sticks; and third, and most importantly, it breaks with the dominant narrative in which India and Pakistan are treated as unitary actors.
This last is what I have always found the most frustrating and the root cause of setting discussions on futile paths. Pakistan and India are inanimate pieces of earth and it makes little sense to claim that Pakistan did this or India did that – the paradigm leads immediately to wanting to settle scores as between two individuals. Surely there are diverse opinions and interest groups on both sides that need to be disentangled – that should be the first element in the design of any smart strategy.
Thus it was really refreshing to see an articulation that assigned responsibilities appropriately and realized the importance of reaching out to the suffering masses. Leaving everything else aside, this itself provides the core of an Indian Pakistan policy that could aspire to be smart. In essence, the policy is quite simple: isolate the actors within Pakistan with a stake in perpetuating hostilities with India while reaching out and empowering those who have most to gain from better relations.
Moving this forward calls for ceasing to play to the Pakistani tune, understanding the objectives of the policy adopted by the Pakistani establishment, and working to undermine it. It requires weakening the hold of the indoctrination that has been successfully built up and maintained in Pakistan by prying open the doors that provide its isolation from reality and making it obvious that there are gains, big gains, for many, especially the young, from better relations.
It is in this framework that I had on a number of occasions asked leaders of peace delegations from across the border why India adheres to a self-defeating tit-for-tat policy. Why doesn’t India unilaterally ease some rules regarding, say, trade, travel and education, show up the unreasonable positions of the Pakistani establishment to its citizens, and begin the process of unraveling the anti-India mythology carefully nurtured over the years? After all, people-to-people interactions are almost always positive and money and opportunities talk. Every time I have been provided an enigmatic answer, that says, in so many words, ‘You do not know the mind of the Indian bureaucrat.’
Does this contain the answer to the continuation of the ‘lose-lose’ tit-for-tat policy, the unitary paradigm, and the absence of rational discourse? We may be living in the Age of Reason and striving for global objectives but do we remain slaves to emotions aroused by ghosts of imaginary pasts as choreographed in the pages of revisionist history books. Do all the ‘fortunate’ who are educated, be they bureaucrats or diplomats, find it difficult to progress beyond the visceral need to redress the wrongs of the past? Are wounded psyches achieving the same results in India that require conscious indoctrination in Pakistan?
It is a sobering thought and therefore, much as I was encouraged by the proposal on Centre-Right India, the task of salvaging it from those with real and imagined wounds and wounded imaginations might prove to be more difficult challenge. Even the most rational strategy would run the risk of being hijacked in such a scenario. The Centre-Right opinion immediately drew a comment from a supporter: “Very well stated. The crux of the issue is India has been apologetic about its size and power. The big brother now needs to deliver the slap that would set the ears ringing for a long time to come.”
How ironical that we might have to consider it fortunate that there are very large segments of the population on both sides that have never been to school and an equally large number that never advanced to the stage where they could be taught any history. Do our hopes for the future rest in their hands? If so, how do we enable them to reach out to each other over the heads of their representatives?
Here is a story about the forgotten prisoners who bear the brunt of the absence of policy on one side and concern on the other: Released Indian and Pakistani prisoners describe trauma.
There is a parallel discussion focused on different aspects of this topic on 3 Quarks Daily where this article has been cross-posted.