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For the first time after Kargil, India has the better of Pakistan

December 08, 2015 11:24 IST

Indian and Pakistani flags'The talks in Bangkok, virtually on Indian terms, is an event where Pakistan seems to have blinked first,' says Colonel Anil A Athale (retd).

In the dying days of Rome, Edward Gibbon observed that public discourse was monopolised by 'actors, bards and acrobats.' Though certainly not in that kind of state, India exhibits these traits on many important issues. This is an attempt to carry out a rational dialogue on India-Pakistan relations. It needs to be reiterated that all through the Cold War, the antagonists, the then USSR and the US, never broke off their dialogue, carried out secretly in Warsaw.

Indian and Pakistan national security advisors and foreign secretaries had a 'secret meeting' in Bangkok and appear to have resumed the dialogue agreed to at Ufa, Russia, between the two prime ministers. The meeting can hardly be called secret since it was officially acknowledged to have taken place.

At best these can be called 'unpublicised' talks. No sooner had the announcement been made, the media circus began in earnest with the ruling party defending it and the Opposition claiming that its stand of 'uninterrupted dialogue' policy has been vindicated.

Coming as it does in the wake of border tensions/firings and the disclosure of a spy ring in India, some have cried 'betrayal.' In reality, it was a great triumph for Indian diplomacy and a personal victory of sorts for the Modi government's tough posture.

By holding talks in a third country, the two sides deftly side-stepped the issue of the role of Kashmiri separatists. The last scheduled talks in Delhi broke up over the issue of Pakistani consultations with Kashmiri separatists.

By holding the talks unannounced and in a third country, that issue never arose. This is certainly an acknowledgement of Indian sensitivity over this issue.

More importantly, these talks have been resumed after India began a new policy of 'disproportionate' response to border firing by Pakistan. Despite the media hype in India about the suffering of the border population on the Indian side, the fact of the matter is that Pakistan suffered much greater damage.

The border area on the Pakistani side is much more densely populated and lies close to the heartland of Punjab, especially the Sialkot sector. Through the escalation of border tensions, the Modi government conveyed a message that it would not be satisfied with a 'proportionate' response but would go in for punishment to Pakistan.

This is not jingoism or warmongering, but a very necessary step needed to restore the credibility of Indian deterrence.

Deterrence is a strategy of ensuring peace with a threat of certain and devastating retaliation. A deterrence strategy has two components: Capability and credibility. India has the capability to respond to security challenges, but our credibility suffered a major blow when in the wake of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, India failed to retaliate.

The constant reiteration by misguided and naive peaceniks that talks and dialogue will continue despite the Mumbai attacks actually increased the probability of its recurrence.

The biggest challenge before the Modi government was to restore the credibility of Indian deterrence to terror attacks. Mere statements not backed by actions were of no use. It is here that the retaliation on the border played a role in convincing Pakistan that the next time a Mumbai 26/11-like attack takes place, India will retaliate.

It appears that the Modi government has been successful in conveying to Pakistan and other world powers that not responding to the next Mumbai 26/11-like terror attack was not an option. It would mean political suicide for the Modi government that came to power on the promise of a robust national security policy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's no nonsense style and image as a tough leader with a full mandate played a role as well.

Pakistan attempted a way out of this dilemma by floating the idea of tactical nuclear weapons, to be used against an Indian retaliatory attack. India has maintained that it does not distinguish between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons and any nuclear use will meet with the 'full force of an Indian retaliatory nuclear attack.'

This impasse between the two countries and Pakistan's escalation of a nuclear arms race set alarm bells ringing and provoked an adverse global reaction.

American think-tanks and the media (the venerable New York Times) have been unanimously critical of this Pakistani move. The world is aware that even a limited nuclear exchange within South Asia will have a devastating impact on the world environment, already in a fragile state due to global warming.

In addition to the fear of a nuclear winter, the world is concerned that the use of nuclear weapons in South Asia will break the taboo, which has been in place since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The genuine fear is that this will usher an age of nuclear anarchy, with unforeseen consequences.

The scenario of a Pakistan origin terror attack in India, a retaliatory attack by Indians in response and the Pakistani use of nuclear weapons against the attacking Indians, leading to a full-fledged nuclear war in South Asia has backfired on Pakistan.

The talks held in Bangkok, virtually on Indian terms, is an event where Pakistan seems to have blinked first. In this game of chicken, it is the first time after Kargil in 1999 that India seems to have had the better of Pakistan.

This may also signal the end of the successful Pakistani strategy of calculated irrationality (colourfully described as the 'Mad Mullah' strategy by the Washington Post in 1987). The basic premise of this was that Pakistan is irrational and therefore prone to aggression unmindful of the consequences and therefore India as a rational and peace-loving nation must make concessions!

By insisting that while India is peace-loving but has no choice but to retaliate, India has for the time being negated the Pakistani advantage with the help of global pressure.

It is speculation, but one feels that in Bangkok, Pakistan must indeed have given assurances that it will rein in non-State actors like the Lashkar-e-Tayiba. Whether the talks succeed or fail will depend on the internal dynamics of Pakistan between the rationalists and fanatics and between politicians and the hawkish army.

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd) is Coordinator, Indian Initiative for Peace, Arms-control & Disarmament.

Col Anil A Athale (retd)