Modi’s silence: Pakistan cannot be a domestic issue or a subset of the Chinese problem

Pakistani Army Brigadier Tahir Raza Naqui and Indian Army Brigadier A K Bakshi shake hands during the opening of a crossing on the Line of Control at Titrinote, on 7 November 2005. The Indian government had been very aggressive on the LoC, but the fears of an unintended military escalation when the desperate need was to focus on the Chinese border, led to India offering Pakistan a reaffirmation of the ceasefire on the LoC. Kimimasa Mayama/REUTERS
22 July, 2022

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s re-election campaign in 2019 had no imprint of the promises he had made five years before. Gone was the allure of achhe din—the good days—the promise of two crore jobs every year and 15 lakh rupees in each account. The Gujarat Model was also nowhere to be seen. In its place was muscular hyper-nationalism, Hindutva majoritarianism and authoritarian populism—all of it riding on a vicious anti-Pakistan tirade, tom-tomming the Balakot airstrike unleashed to avenge the Pulwama suicide bombing. Besides proud proclamations of having ordered the firing of missiles into Pakistan, threats of using nuclear weapons were openly given.            

Invoking Pakistan in vengeful terms is not a new tactic for Modi. He did it during numerous state assembly elections before 2019, hitting a particular low during the 2017 Gujarat elections when he made baseless innuendo-filled allegations against Manmohan Singh and Hamid Ansari of colluding with Pakistani diplomats to make Ahmed Patel the chief minister of Gujarat. As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi was fond of raising Pakistan in his campaign. He invoked “Miyan Musharraf” to link Indian Muslims with Pakistan, and, by extension, terrorism.

To those following Modi’s career, his insinuations and anti-Pakistan rhetoric in 2019 was in keeping with his past. If Modi’s election rhetoric translated into policy, Pakistan would have been wiped out from the face of earth after 2019. Instead, within a year of his re-election, Modi was studiously avoiding any mention of Pakistan in his speeches. Since then, assembly elections have been held in Bihar, Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Goa, Manipur, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand. Scarcely has Modi made a mention of Pakistan in his election speeches. The absence is glaring. This is unlikely to be because of a change of heart on Pakistan, but instead due to the harsh reality of Chinese forces taking control of some parcels of Indian territory in Ladakh in April and May 2020.

Even though India is supposed to be ready for a two-front collusive military threat from China and Pakistan, it appears completely unprepared for the conflict. As of late 2019, it barely had stocks of critical ammunition to last ten days of intense warfighting, scarcely sufficient to deal with Pakistan alone. As the Ladakh border crisis demonstrated, India was compelled to reallocate, reassign, and redeploy forces earmarked for Pakistan on to the China border, demonstrating an inadequacy of resources if Pakistan were to even start mobilising its troops towards the Line of Control in Kashmir.

In a 2018 document, former army chief NC Vij had postulated this as a nightmare scenario for India. “If there was to be a war between China and India, Pakistan would almost definitely activate the Western borders with a view to try and seize Kashmir, as Indian troops would be reduced to less than half the normal deployment opposite Pakistan. There will be very little possibility of switching troops and resources from one front to another in case of a war on two fronts,” he warned. India’s Air Force Chief BS Dhanoa told me in 2017 that 42 squadrons “is the minimum strength necessary to dominate a two-front conflict.” However, the Air Force currently has only 30 squadrons of fighter jets. His fear that “reduced numbers place a severe handicap, akin to a cricket team playing with seven players instead of 11” would have certainly sounded ominous to Indian political and military leadership in the summer of 2020 when the Ladakh border crisis started.

Modi was forced to eschew mentioning Pakistan thereafter, and approaches were made to Pakistan’s military leadership for backchannel talks through the United Arab Emirates. In the gung-ho environment after the abrogation of Article 370, ceasefire violations on the Line of Control had reached an all-time high since 2003 when the cessation of firing was first instituted. The Indian side had been very aggressive on the LoC, but the fears of an unintended military escalation when the desperate need was to focus on the China border, led to India offering Pakistan a reaffirmation of the ceasefire on the LoC. Backchannel talks between the two sides progressed actively from August 2020, preventing any military escalation by Pakistan, and a reinstitution of the LoC ceasefire was announced in February and March 2020. Pakistan’s Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa told Pakistani journalists that India had agreed to a time-bound roadmap. The Indian side reportedly failed to keep its part of the deal, and Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan blocked any further steps from Pakistan unless at least two conditions were met: a law announcing no demographic change in Kashmir, and restoration of statehood to Jammu and Kashmir.

Officials say that despite voices of discontent at the top tiers of Pakistan army, Bajwa was keen to go ahead and normalise relations with India. He refused to exploit the opportunity provided by China and remained committed to the theory that Pakistan must shift from centre of geopolitics to centre of geoeconomics. The Pakistan governments attention was soon busied by events in Afghanistan, as the US military withdrew from the country. Even though backchannel talks with India continued, there was no substantive announcement because of Khan’s intransigence. By the time he was unseated, Pakistan was in the grip of a major economic crisis and a political crisis followed suit. Even though the Shehbaz Sharif led government is seen to be more friendly towards India, the recent Punjab by-polls went in Khan’s favour, particularly after the government took unpopular economic decisions, such as securing an International Monetary Fund loan. This has left Sharif with little political space to make a bold move towards India. The hopes of a breakthrough trade deal still remain alive.

The window of opportunity, however, is short. Bajwa retires in November and his successor is likely to chart his own course when it comes to India. The US has already ensured that Pakistan will soon be taken off the Financial Action Task Force grey list—an internationally recognised mechanism to end the flow of illicit funds—bringing it some economic relief. Pakistan’s economy could likely further stabilise with the IMF loan and if the geopolitical turmoil created by the Ukraine crisis subsides. The Pakistan army too could also be more confident and aggressive under their new chief. Elections are due in Pakistan next year, and Sharif would not want to have Khan attacking him of not having supported the army against India.

Meanwhile, the party congress of the Chinese Communist Party will be held in November 2022, which brings its own period of volatility. Despite concessions from India—New Delhi has not been insisting on the restoration of status quo ante in Ladakh and foreign minister S Jaishankar failed to stress that bilateral ties will not be normalised until the border crisis is resolved—the Chinese stance on Ladakh has been hardening. Border talks have stalled and militarily important areas of Depsang and Demchok are not even on the agenda. Following the Doklam template, India seems desperate to announce the Ladakh crisis as resolved, even though an enhanced Chinese military presence and infrastructure continue to grow while Indian border patrols are denied access to areas which they monitored before April 2020.

Declaring the Ladakh crisis as resolved brings numerous advantages to Modi. Domestic political benefits and a reduced risk of military escalation in Ladakh apart, Modi will not have to worry about a new Pakistani army chief operating in collusion with China to put pressure on India. It also leaves Modi with enough time and opportunity to return to invoking Pakistan in his election speeches. If an opportunity presents itself, he could order another military strike on Pakistan and ensure his electoral win in 2024 general elections.

With his interest on the China border crisis, Modi’s engagement with Pakistan is tactical and temporary. It only works to prevent Pakistan from actively colluding with China. This management of an immediate problem does nothing to address the reasons for mutual hostility which allows some people and organisations to consolidate their base and power at home. As former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, TCA Raghavan, recently wrote, “dealing with Pakistan on the security dimension alone remains inherently a limited and self-limiting approach.” He warned that those who think that “the long impasse since 2016 is even suggestive of a new normal in India-Pakistan relations” are “clearly mistaken because permanence here or, for that matter anywhere else, is an imaginary construct.” Between two nuclear-armed states which have fought four wars and exist in a tense neighbourhood, that construct is even more illusory. For India, Pakistan can neither be a domestic issue nor a subset of the Chinese problem.

Any power aspiring to be a great one, or even moderately so, must first seek to shape its immediate environment. A peaceful, stable, and cooperative neighbourhood will be a must if a nation that will soon be the most populous in the world is to achieve its potential. India must go out and seize the peace.