Prime Minister Narendra Modi started his tenure in office with what appeared to be a forward-looking and progressive neighbourhood policy. Good relations with neighbours were prioritised, and it appeared that Mr Modi’s warm relations with Japan would not be allowed to get in the way of reducing tensions with the People’s Republic of China. Above all, Mr Modi and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, seemed to have started off on a promising note. Mr Modi’s visit to Srinagar and to army outposts on the ridge above the Siachen glacier over the festival of Diwali last week, however, showed how much things have changed since he took office. It is unfortunate that, five months on, the original effort to reduce tensions has lost a lot of its earlier zeal.
Perhaps Mr Modi’s confrontational approach in Kashmir, including the abandonment of a successful 11-year-old ceasefire along the Line of Control, can be partly explained away as the consequence of short-term political calculations ahead of elections in Jammu and Kashmir later this year. It is important ideologically for Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and its parent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to be part of the government in the state. But there is little doubt that decision-makers in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) are signalling that there is an end to what they saw as the overly conciliatory policies followed under the last administration with Pakistan in particular. However, even the most charitable explanation for increased aggression – that is, that the PMO believes a changed long-term stance towards Pakistan is in India’s long-term interests, and not part of short-term political expediency – does not seem to have been properly thought through. Neither Mr Modi nor his office has issued an explanation of what their strategy of engagement with Pakistan will be.
The simple truth remains that, short of an attempt to simply restore a national pride supposedly harmed by weakness at the border, there seems to be little logic to the new approach. It has long been clear that the only sustainable approach to Pakistan is to engage with the country in a manner that actively increases the size and power of pro-India or neutral interest groups within that society in the long term, while reducing the risk of confrontation in the medium term. This may be frustrating for New Delhi, given the belligerent and backward attitude of the Pakistan army. But it is patience that makes for wise diplomacy. The breaking-off of the composite dialogue is a particularly foolhardy act. It leaves India with no levers whatsoever. Security in Kashmir should, of course, be paramount; but nuclear confidence-building measures (CBM) should also be a focus and a medium-term goal. The risks of a run-of-the-mill confrontation turning seriously nasty increase manifold if a posture of aggression becomes the baseline. To minimise the threat of escalation, instead, nuclear CBMs in particular should be worked on. That needs a resumption of dialogue. In 2010, a meeting at a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) conference in Thimphu between Indian and Pakistani leaders led to a thaw in relations and the resumption of dialogue. One month from now, there is another such Saarc meeting in Kathmandu. The PMO should start laying the ground from now for a repetition of the Thimphu thaw.