On the surface, India’s policy arc towards Pakistan is puzzling. Every episode of domestic terrorism, like Gurdaspur, is followed by sharp rebukes but little proof. The Indian government always promises a “disproportionate and unpredictable” response, whips up war hysteria, but then goes back to sleep. Its version of payback is to either ramp up cross-border fire on the Line of Control (LOC), sponsor new terrorists in Pakistan, or flood Punjab’s rivers during monsoon season. For a country that is now a major economic and military power, India sends too many mixed signals about war. Does it want one or does it not?
Of course, there is a larger endgame behind this dithering. For India, the ultimate validation of its newfound stature would be a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC). It would also help “the young generation get rid of their low self-esteem,” says BJP leader Subramanian Swamy. Until that happens, India will rail at Pakistan, defend when necessary, but not risk an open show of force. It itches to outgrow South Asia and become part of the global elite, but constant friction with much-smaller Pakistan grounds its moral case. The country’s spotty human rights record does not help either.
Everything would be kosher if a UNSC permanent seat was awarded by some tangible yardstick. Unfortunately for India, the UN is moored to a moral dimension both fluid, and often rearranged by the current P5. There is indeed a reforms council for this purpose, and India is part of the G4, but the pace is glacial. At its core, the UNSC requires its permanent members to be beacons of international peace. Ergo, the naysayers claim since India itself is unable to honor UN resolutions on Kashmir, why should it have the right to judge others as a permanent member?
India also knows that this window to greatness will not be open forever. The country is unlike China, with its all-powerful central government and the majority Han race. India has millions living in extreme poverty, in sprawling slums, and hence vulnerable to the next contagious super-bug that savages all economic activity. India is also prone to insurgencies because of its highly diverse ethnic base. This will become a real problem when the region runs into food and water security issues that are imminent in the next two decades.
David Malone, a renowned India expert, wrote in his 2011 book “Does The Elephant Dance?” that the country changed tack after being near bankrupt in the early 1990s. Big ticket items like global economic glory replaced sabotaging Pakistan at the top of India’s wish-list. At that point, Malone says the country took up a policy of “strategic restraint” to shore up its “economic priorities.” Right now, India is a top ten global economy with a growth rate exceeding China’s. It also has the world’s third largest army, and a paramount role on UN peacekeeping missions. Reasonably, today’s India wishes its success and potential not be tainted by Pakistan or Kashmir.
Hence, when people in Pakistan fuss over the optics of Ufa, or the joint statement that followed, they miss the bigger picture. This meeting was Pakistan’s win for one simple reason: India, with all its military might and G20 clout, still finds the cost of not engaging Pakistan prohibitive. Even as both countries regularly accuse each other of state sponsored terrorism, India pushes for dialogue despite having the capacity to militarily assert itself.
Indeed, if India was not aiming so high, it would have taken military advantage of Pakistan’s tough war on the western front years ago. Capitalizing on your enemy’s weakness is common sense after all. One theory goes that China keeps India of Pakistan, which is somewhat true. However, without a formal defense pact, the idea of Beijing intervening in an Indo-Pak war is wishful thinking. Moreover, was it not surprising that an unabashed Hindu nationalist like Narendra Modi – a man who proudly admitted to his role in creating Bangladesh – decided to risk a popularity dip just to chitchat in Ufa?
Another theory is that Modi’s meeting with Nawaz Sharif was a means to appease the U.S. Malone, however, believes that India is possessive about its foreign policy autonomy, and has been that way since Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru himself tried hard to keep India out of the Cold War, and only folded when it became clear that America would stand by Pakistan.
Sumit Ganguly, a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, thinks Modi still desires dialogue with Pakistan after Gurdaspur, but will try to pressure the country to back off through its neighbors. How will that conversation work with Afghanistan or China? Also, Iran may have Pakistan’s economic ear because of the peace-pipeline project, but wields little influence elsewhere. What this boils down to is a status quo stalemate: where Indian politics will orbit around anti-Pakistan talk, but eschew a head-on collision that could kill India’s chances at the UNSC.