Should India talk to Pakistan? The conventional view is that we should not as long as Pakistan continues to sponsor terrorism against India. This is the policy, it appears, that we are following now. Pakistan was not invited for Prime Minister Narendra Modis swearing-in ceremony on May 30. We have not responded to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khans appeasing messages for the commencement of talks. Mr Modi did not accept Pakistan’s offer to relax the no-fly zone over its territory for his journey to Bishkek. And, at the Shanghai Cooperation Summit (SCO) there, no meeting formal or informal took place between the two leaders.
Given Pakistan’s verifiable complicity in the unabated terrorist attacks against India, especially the most recent Pulwama attack, our stern approach is correct. The message must go across firmly to Pakistan that talks and terrorism cannot go together. Pakistan must be hoping that as so many times in the past India will opt to forgive and forget, and move on towards the restoration of normalcy. Such a soft approach only emboldens Pakistan to continue with its finely tuned policy of explosive aggression followed by tactical appeasement. We need to short-circuit this deadly syndrome, and only a consistent hard line can hope to achieve that.
This being said, must the leaders of two neighbouring countries behave like petulant children who make a spectacle of their hostility even in company? At the SCO meet in Bishkek, Imran Khan and Narendra Modi did not even greet each other for the most part of the two-day summit (and only briefly exchanged pleasantries and shook hands at the end), while Russias Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping and a dozen other leaders from other countries looked on. While our policy on no structured talks or preplanned formal or even informal summit meetings may be right, do we have to stretch this to a lack of basic manners that is the protocol even between confirmed adversaries?
The significant point is that state craftsmanship is about deliberative policymaking, not tantrums. To talk or not to talk is a decision that has to be embedded in a strategic matrix, with all its short-term and long-term consequences factored in and anticipated. In this exercise, the only north star of policy formulation is the national interest. If the national interest is served by talks, we should talk. If it is not, we should not. But, a decision in this regard should be taken by a systemic, ruthless, unemotional analysis of the pros and cons of a decision either way.
To my understanding of Chanakyan politics, talks or no talks are not an end in themselves, but a means to an end. That end is the national interest. Chanakya himself preferred a mix of policy alternatives, famously summed up in his fourfold policy of sama, dama, danda, bheda reconciliation, inducement, punishment and subversion. There is also a fifth but lesser known policy option called asana, which is the strategic art of deliberately sitting on the fence. Enlightened foreign policy means the art of picking one of the options from this bouquet of choices, or using several together as part of strategically meticulous planning. Our airstrike on Balakote was a very good example of danda. Our not responding to Pakistani overtures for talks is a continuation of that policy.
Can we continue the policy of danda forever? In some ways yes, if we continue to do a Balakote every time there is terrorist aggression on the scale of Pulwama from across the border. But by simplistically treating Pakistan as an untouchable in every circumstance and every occasion, are we reducing the efficacy of danda, besides giving Pakistan brownie points on the international stage as the country wanting to have better relations with India. The world is concerned about two nuclear weapons states being perpetually on a short fuse.
A sensible policy would be to have talks on our terms and agenda at a time of our choosing. The agenda should have terrorism at the very top of the list. This will convey to the world that India is amenable to better relations, albeit on conditions, which are given Pakistan’s verifiable record in sponsoring terrorism eminently reasonable. If Pakistan chooses not to agree, so be it. Let us persist with this policy, so that Pakistan is left with no doubt that we mean business. But let us be ready that if Pakistan agrees to talks on our terms, the talks do not deviate, or get unintentionally amplified, to include other issues that are subsidiary to the primary one of terrorism.
At the same time, we should consider, at the appropriate time, the strategic utility of two-track diplomacy, or back-channel talks, with the right interlocutors in Pakistan. Such talks will have to be with the Deep State in that country, consisting of the Army and the ISI. Pakistans economy is in deep trouble. There are limitations to which a country that is sinking in debt can maintain or sustain permanent war-preparedness. The policy of sama should kick in with a planned outreach to those constituencies in Pakistan that benefit from a peace dividend. Simultaneously, concerted diplomatic effort to isolate Pakistan on the question of terrorism should continue, as indeed, Prime Minister Modi did in Bishkek.
What we dont need is adhocism or lack of strategic consistency, wherein one day our PM makes an unplanned halt in Lahore to wish the Pakistan PM on his birthday, and the next day doesnt even greet his successor. Chanakya taught us that emotionalism and strategic planning, and impulsiveness and long-term policy formulation, are like oil and water they just do not mix. Meanwhile, I think we should rethink our current stance of not even exchanging greetings or making eye contact with Pakistani leaders at international gatherings. Diplomacy is about policy, not the truculence of schoolchildren. Illiterate hardliners may cheer, but there is something unedifying in this kind of behaviour between two neighbouring countries, whatever the problems between them. Diplomacy sanctions resoluteness, not a lack of essential social graces.