In the course of an interview to the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in November 1972, when he was at the height of his position as the mastermind of US foreign policy, Henry Kissinger warned against his policies being subjected to facile moral judgments. The “history of things that didn’t happen”, he asserted, had to be considered before passing a verdict on things that did happen.
Kissinger’s invocation of the counter-factual to assess the road travelled comes to mind in the context of the loud criticisms of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dramatic overture to Pakistan on Christmas Day. If the attack on the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot nine days later was a direct jihadi response to Modi’s Lahore visit, would India have been better served had the Indian Prime Minister preferred protocol over impulse? After all, there was enough evidence — dating back to Pakistan’s post-bus diplomacy perfidy in 1999 — to indicate there would be a violent reaction each time there was a hint of forward movement in diplomatic relations. By this logic, India and Pakistan must stick to the script of a holy war.
The options before India would have been simpler had there been a consensus that relations with Pakistan should be kept to a bare minimum and aimed merely at preventing a full-scale war. Unfortunately, there are few takers for a policy of benign neglect. Apart from the fact that Pakistan itself craves for India’s attention, even if it is just to nag us on Kashmir, there are those in India who either dream of a common market or cherish confused notions of a composite culture.
The choices may have been more uncluttered had most of Pakistan been made up of either fanatical jihadis fulminating from the pulpit or demented generals making a spectacle of themselves on TV. That isn’t the case. There is a Pakistan that shares literary, artistic and even entrepreneurial impulses with its Indian counterpart. There is also the large Pakistani diaspora that is often indistinguishable from overseas Indians. And finally, there are Indians and Pakistanis linked by family ties, not to mention elite connections forged in American or British universities. Together they don’t necessarily make for a ‘peace’ constituency but they are certainly a deterrent against popular demonology becoming state policy. There is a widespread distaste in India for Pakistan as a nation but the loathing doesn’t extend to Pakistanis. Indians are forever engaged in the quest for the ‘good
Arguably, it is this layered perception that is at the heart of the inconsistencies and hesitations in India’s neighbourhood policy. By now there is an overweight of evidence to suggest that Pakistan is a schizoid state, unable to decide whether it wants the modernist Kemal Ataturk as its role model or whether it seeks salvation through the medievalist zeal of a Taliban clone. Variations of both tendencies are present in the Pakistan establishment, and neither can cancel the other out.
Prime Minister Sharif was perhaps not insincere in his attempt to cobble together a working relationship with India built on pragmatic considerations. He was not insincere in 1999 either, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee travelled to Lahore. But it is extremely unlikely he will be able to act on India’s demand to come down hard on those who organized the Pathankot attack. Recall the zero progress made in the prosecution of those responsible for the 26/11 Mumbai massacre. The reality is stark: taking an Indian life doesn’t constitute criminality in Pakistan. Many see it as the passage to a blissful afterlife.
So, would Modi have been better off sticking to conventional, protocol-based diplomacy with Pakistan? It would certainly have been a riskaverse approach. From the moment he landed in Lahore, Modi was inviting retaliation from the holy warriors. It was a combination of readiness and luck that ensured none of the military objectives of the mission were met. But Pathankot will not be the last. Indian resilience will be severely tested.
The jihadis know why they are conducting suicide missions. Does India know what it wants from Pakistan? Mere ‘friendship’ is too feeble a goal. A meaningful Pakistan policy must be prefaced on objectives that are noble enough to lose lives for.