India unshackled from Pakistan is good news
A mix of marginalisation, mobilisation and militarisation has helped Delhi take away a key facet of Pakistan’s outreach, allowing India to be more ambitious on the regional and global stage
As we celebrate the seventh decade of our Republic, there are many achievements that India can be proud of. Today, the world looks at India with a new sense of anticipation as we emerge as one of the fastest growing major economies. New Delhi is today seen as capable and willing to shape global outcomes and shoulder greater responsibilities in a world facing a leadership vacuum. There are challenges, but the optimism that radiates from India is a galvanising force at a time when a fractured and polarised world has few bright spots.
A remarkable achievement of the last few years has been the unshackling of India from the baggage of Pakistan. For years, it was conventional wisdom in India and abroad that it has no future unless India tackles the Pakistan problem. So, tomes were written, and careers were made, by advising India on how to deal with a recalcitrant neighbour structurally predisposed to challenging New Delhi from its inception.
Instead of dealing with Pakistan with strategic foresight, Indian decision-makers, for decades, spent their diplomatic capital and meagre resources in understanding a nation whose domestic dysfunction made it long immune to any possible cure. But New Delhi kept at it partly out of the conviction that it could make Islamabad and Rawalpindi see reason, and partly because the rest of the world forced it into believing that its redemption lay in getting Pakistan right. In the process, we could neither deal with Pakistani malevolence effectively nor see the gathering storm from China’s rise.
It took India almost seven decades to get its Pakistan policy right. A policy mix of marginalisation, mobilisation and militarisation that emerged in the aftermath of Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s initial overtures to Pakistan has paid handsome dividends. Today even as the Pakistani economy is crumbling and its domestic balance is coming unstuck (as exemplified by repeated terror strikes, including Tuesday’s suicide bombing at a mosque in Peshawar), lack of governance is at the heart of most debates, as it should be. But the fact that this is happening at a time when India is at the core of the emerging global order should also not be lost.
India’s marginalisation of Pakistan in its foreign policy matrix took away the central facet of Pakistani global outreach. Post-2016, Indian diplomacy ensured New Delhi became more ambitious regionally and globally, and no effort was invested in engaging Pakistan. PM Modi has not looked at Pakistan again after realising there was no real partner for that elusive peace. At the regional level, the shift from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation to the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) has allowed India to talk of its regional leadership in partnership with those neighbours that are interested and invested in regional cooperation.
And with the Bay of Bengal taking centre stage, the definition of India’s neighbourhood also took on a new meaning with Myanmar and Thailand as members of BIMSTEC. New Delhi could now lay claim to being organically connected to Southeast Asia, thereby linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans conceptually and operationally. India’s Indo-Pacific outreach and more focused management of the China problem could become possible only after jettisoning the baggage of Pakistan.
This foreign policy liberation was coupled with a high voltage and very targeted mobilisation of support for India’s global counterterrorism policy. New Delhi has so far ensured that even as a large part of the world is moving away from a never-ending “war on terror”, the spotlight remains on the epicentre of terrorism in South Asia. From the Financial Action Task Force to the United Nations Security Council, every platform has been used by India to make a robust case that terrorism is a global menace that cannot be dealt with through half-hearted measures. Today, the only nation seen standing with Pakistan is China, which also had to give in to global demands at times. This global mobilisation on an issue that is now closely associated with Pakistan has, in one fell swoop, buttressed India’s international leadership credentials and exposed the China-Pakistan axis.
Finally, perhaps most significantly, New Delhi has started wielding the military instrument more effectively as part of its Pakistan policy. The Indian Army has been given a freer hand in responding to Pakistani activities along the Line of Control. This tactical response has given India greater operational space along the border and ensured that the other side recognises the costs associated with its misadventures. Strategically, the Balakot airstrikes in 2019 have created a new balance in the subcontinent, with New Delhi demonstrating its willingness to climb the escalation ladder and not merely absorb the costs of conventional Pakistani attacks. The Indian military has shown its ability to ensure an across-the-spectrum dominance, creating a new regional equilibrium.
The more India has ignored Pakistan, the shriller has been the response from the Pakistani leadership. But the results of the Indian policy response are evident in New Delhi making new space in the global hierarchy and the rapidly decreasing support for Pakistan, even from some of its closest allies. There have been some suggestions that recent invites to the Pakistani leadership for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meetings might entail something more significant in the India-Pakistan bilateral engagement. This might be a fundamental misreading of New Delhi’s intent. Pakistan is wallowing in multiple problems – all of them the making of its elites. India can be sympathetic to the challenges of Pakistan’s citizens and hope for the best. But starting a futile India-Pakistan peace process will neither solve Pakistan’s problems nor help India pursue its foreign policy objectives.
Harsh V Pant is vice-president, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and professor at King’s College London
The views expressed are personal
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