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Sharif has given up hope on better ties during the Modi era

By M K Bhadrakumar
October 02, 2015 11:38 IST
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'Indian diplomacy is once again being saddled with the heavy burden of a Pakistan-centric foreign policy. It is something grossly unfair at a crucial juncture in India's trajectory as an emerging power on the global stage,' argues Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar.

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the United Nations.

There is something in common, but much in contrast, between the speech Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made in 2013 at the annual United Nations General Assembly session and his statement at the same venue in New York on September 30.

Indeed, both speeches contained references to relations with India and the 'core issue' of Kashmir. But then, they need to be juxtaposed for two other reasons.

Firstly, Sharif made the 2013 speech during the United Progressive Alliance rule in India, while this time around Prime Minister Narendra Modi is running the government.

Two years ago, Sharif spoke positively about his expectations of carrying forward the India-Pakistan dialogue with Manmohan Singh, while Wednesday's speech was strikingly gloomy -- even alarmist, signaling gathering storms on the horizon.

However, the speech is a mirror image of the sharp deterioration of the India-Pakistan ties under Modi's watch. Modi has squandered away the UPA's splendid legacy of bringing about some degree of stability and predictability to India's relations with Pakistan.

Sharif seems to have given up hope of an improvement in relations so long as Modi is in power in India. His focus on Wednesday was on how to avoid a conflict.

The 2013 speech contained a clear enunciation of Pakistan's stance on the Kashmir problem -- the imperative need of the UN 'continuing to remain attentive' to the Kashmir issue and of the 'full realisation of the right to self-determination' of Kashmiris in accordance with the Security Council resolutions, et al.

But it was essentially an articulation that the prime minister was dutifully making, as was expected of him by domestic public opinion.

However, Sharif's statement condemning India's 'brutal oppression' of Kashmiris was couched in an unfriendly, harsh, tone. Sharif lamented 'the most persistent failure' of the UN to resolve the Kashmir issue.

He projected Pakistan as a responsible regional power, outlining a new peace initiative with four specific steps to lower the tensions in relations with India.

Sharif took a swipe at India by portraying Pakistan as a victim of terrorism, and he lamented that the global campaign against terrorism is being exploited 'to suppress the legitimate right of occupied peoples to self-determination.'

Sharif just stopped short of hinting that Pakistan harbours reservations about India's eligibility to be a permanent member of the Security Council.

India, of course, promptly exercised its 'right of reply' and plunged into rhetoric, portraying Pakistan as a State sponsoring terrorism and attributing the tensions entirely to Islamabad's support of cross-broader terrorism.

Alongside, even as Sharif took the UN podium in New York, a documentary film appeared from nowhere on Indian television screens, highlighting repressive methods by the army in Pakistan occupied Kashmir. It apparently ridiculed the Pakistani claim to speak on behalf of the Kashmiri people.

Evidently, the Indian establishment anticipated that Sharif would harp on the Kashmir issue. The 'right of reply' bears out that New Delhi is on an overdrive on the propaganda front.

But is that enough of a response? The point is, Pakistani strategy has several templates and polemics is only one of them. Whereas, the key templates are:

  • One, Pakistan is determined to force India to discuss the Kashmir issue and has made it a pre-condition for talks. However, for Modi government (and the Sangh Parivar which mentors it), meeting the Pakistani demand amounts to biting the dust. On the other hand, Pakistan is only demanding something that the Simla Agreement stipulated. How far can India afford to hold out and risk looking intransigent? The advantage goes to Pakistan by the day.
  • Two, in Pakistan's estimation, Modi is either himself unwilling or lacks the political stamina -- or both -- to push through the normalisation process with Pakistan. Meanwhile, Pakistan perceives that India has shifted gear to step up covert activities and foster terrorism. In Islamabad's judgment, Modi has put the Indian security establishment on the driving seat to steer Pakistan policies.
  • Three, Pakistan, therefore, feels it is increasingly left with no alternative but to rethink its policies to wind down the asymmetrical war with India in the recent decade (in order to focus more on its western borders and address the internal security situation.)
  • Four, a cutting edge has appeared in the Indian posturing, which is increasingly belligerent, and, coupled with Delhi's agenda to disrupt the multi-billion dollar China-led Silk Road projects, a 'militarisation' of its Pakistan policies might well ensue.

The point is, Pakistan harbours a sense of disquiet that the Modi government may feel tempted to deflect domestic attention away from its failure to deliver on the development plank by ratcheting up tensions with Pakistan and at some point would find it expedient to whip up xenophobia and launch a 'swift, short war.'

Therefore, Pakistan sees the need for a counter-strategy to meet the Indian challenge, which would run in three directions:

  • Apply utmost vigilance on the eastern border with India and flaunt its nuclear deterrent to forewarn India against any adventurism;
  • Involve the UNMOGIP and the 'international community' to curb Indian security forces' belligerence;
  • Revive the traditional pressure points on India, especially in J&K, the bottom line being to force India to resume the talks.

Clearly, if one analyses the Pakistani strategy in its totality, matters have gone way past the polemical plane.

Sharif's 4-point plan is intended to put Indian diplomacy on the defensive:

  • giving formal structure to the 2003 understanding for a ceasefire on the LoC and augmenting the UNMOGIP presence to that end;
  • pledge by both sides to avoid use of force 'under any circumstances';
  • steps to 'demilitarise' Kashmir (both PoK and J&K);
  • an unconditional mutual withdrawal from the Siachen Glacier.

Equally, the regional and international environment comes into play here. Pakistan is pushing the envelope at a juncture when the Afghan problem and the looming threat of Islamic State have combined to impart a new criticality to regional security.

Of course, an India-Pakistan conflict is unthinkable. On the other hand, tensions are steadily rising in J&K and the situation is getting ripe for a spurt in militancy, which New Delhi may be hard-pressed to counter without overpowering coercion and force.

Most important, the political experiment in Srinagar -an unprecedented coalition government involving the BJP -- is inexorably unraveling and may altogether collapse in a near future. If -- or when -- that happens, there is high risk of a political impasse reappearing, as in the 1980s.

Suffice it to say, these are extremely worrying prospects. Indian diplomacy is once again being saddled with the heavy burden of a Pakistan-centric foreign policy. It is something grossly unfair at a crucial juncture in India's trajectory as an emerging power on the global stage.

What is unfolding is far from what the ruling party had promised -- and Modi himself had pledged when he came to power 18 months ago.

At any rate, it is foolhardy to complicate matters further. Sharif's speech was not drafted in Beijing. What was the need to take a hit at the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in our 'right of reply'?

It only draws attention to Pakistan's portrayal of India as a malevolent green-eyed monster next door who cannot brook the sight of a neighbour prospering.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar served at India's high commission in Pakistan during his long and distinguished diplomatic career.

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