As the cycle of state elections winds down and India braces for the results in crucial states like Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, foreign policy, beyond the diaspora's tribulations in the United States, needs attention. While a wary eye on the US is advisable, as others globally are maintaining, India-Pakistan relations and Afghanistan also demand attention. Spring is in the air, but may bring a fresh offensive by the Taliban in Afghanistan and perhaps renewed protests in the Kashmir Valley. As former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee used to say, you can change your friends but not your neighbours.
Permanent hostility is thus undesirable towards a nuclear-armed neighbour. While India must not negotiate under any kind of terror blackmail, nor should red lines be drawn at the walls of Indian cantonments or Army camps in Jammu and Kashmir, as has been done since the Pathankot attack. That provides carte blanche to terrorists to impact India-Pakistan ties by simply unleashing a couple of fidayeen. Complex and large attacks, not mountable by small modules, could be seen as engineered by the Pakistani state and Army, but certainly not every train derailment or poor perimeter defence by our soldiers. That alone should be the red line.
A number of recent signals from Pakistan are significant. The detention of Hafiz Saeed, even if a tactical move, the news that Pakistan's new Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa recommended in a lecture a book on India's democratic success and diminished ceasefire violations across the Line of Control appear like subtle signals that the civilian rulers and the Army chief are in tandem. Pakistan's former NSA Maj. Gen. Mahmud Ali Durrani reiterating in New Delhi what cost him his job once, that the 26/11 Mumbai attack was a cross-border operation mounted out of Pakistan, is hardly a coincidence.
This new dynamics in Pakistan has been confirmed to this writer by well-informed Pakistani analysts. The window available to India is a narrow one, as electoral cycles in both countries tend to constrict the space for talks. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, having frozen relations since the Uri attack, needs to rethink his Pakistan strategy. The composite dialogue is dead and needs reconstruction. Now that Pakistan is convinced that India is behind terror attacks in Pakistan and Ajit Doval has got into their head that the NSAs of the two sides need to revive contacts as mandated by Ufa to seriously discuss terror. The disputes can be separated and handed over to special representatives -- like Kashmir, Siachen and the Sir Creek delineation. The PM could, for instance, consider a politician for the first, a former general for the second and a retired judge for the last. The confidence-building measures need to be tackled by the foreign ministries at the level of foreign secretaries or ministers. The agenda has also widened as new issues like water, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Afghanistan have assumed greater currency of late.
The developments in Afghanistan are making neighbours nervous. In the 12 months till November last year, the area under uncontested government control fell from 72 per cent to 57 per cent , though the population in the government-controlled area is 64 per cent compared to eight per cent in the Taliban area. Former US President Barack Obama's troop drawdown reducing the international forces to 12,600, including 8,400 American troops, has produced a stalemate. The Taliban has been stopped from overthrowing the Kabul government, but Afghan security forces have bled. ISIS, under pressure in Syria and Iraq, is stepping into the vacuum, as are Russia and China, fearing a regression to the 1990s.
In mid-February, Russia convened a meeting of six regional powers with a stake in Afghanistan's future -- that comprised, besides itself and Afghanistan, China, India, Iran and Pakistan. It left open the possibility of the US joining the dialogue later, but was guided by the fear that a sudden US withdrawal would lead to chaos and instability.
Electoral success, specially in UP, is crucial for Mr Modi's consolidation of political power and to get candidates of his choice elected as President and vice-president in July. It may also embolden Mr Modi to make one last attempt to normalise relations with our two biggest neighbours, China and Pakistan. Wisdom dictates that when confronting two antagonistic neighbours, the aim should be to keep them from aligning against you. The Sino-Pakistan alliance now being a reality, India must tactically loosen it. Logically, a deal with China will depend on both accepting zones of influence, allowing each other primacy in their regions, and the settlement of the Dalai Lama and Tibet issues to mutual satisfaction. Border dispute settlement will follow, not precede, such understanding. China settling its borders with all neighbours, other than Bhutan and India, including by acceptance of the McMahon Line with Myanmar, indicates that once its gets strategic satisfaction, it settles border issues.
China, however, sees India as the only civilisational, military and economic counterpoise to its rise in Asia. "The Chinese Dream" of being moderately well-off by 2021 and fully developed by 2049 appears like a Sino-centric vision in which there is little space for others, except as inferior tribute payers. It thus seems unrealistic to expect that China will settle with India if the two countries continue on their current trajectories of growth, with China having an edge.
The alternative for India is to manage ties with Pakistan and not push it deeper into Chinese arms. Mr Modi needs to attempt a well-crafted diplomatic surgical strike on Pakistan, unlike his hit-and-run past forays. It could begin with NSA Ajit Doval calling his counterpart. The Lahore Kite Festival celebrating Basant and the coming spring is over. In India, the Holi festival, which heralds spring, is approaching. The question that confronts South Asia is -- can spring return to India-Pakistan relations?
The article was first published here