Tackling Pakistan has always been a bit of a merry-go-round. With China, the tactic has been to talk as if there is no tension and to fight as if there are no talks happening

by Abhijit Iyer-Mitra

In his Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a very telling statement, “If the world is looking at India differently now, there are two aspects to the new perspective. One is terrorism and the second is expansionism. India is fighting both these challenges and is responding in with courage and conviction”. No prizes for guessing that the terror he was referring to is Pakistan and the expansionist power is China. In this context, it is important to look at the BJP government’s record on dealing with these two countries.

Dealing with Pakistan has always been a bit of a merry-go-round. You never really know what upsets who in the Pakistani hierarchy. For example, if peace talks go well with a civilian government then the army tries to undermine the government because for them the rationale of the Pakistani army’s existence is to oppose India. On the other hand, if negotiations with a military government in Pakistan go well, the army still tries to sabotage them because any kind of peace undermines the raison d’ĂȘtre of to Pakistan Army. But then, if India stops talking to Pakistan, we are still subjected to terror attacks in order to “force India to the negotiating table”. In short, India just can’t win, so what’s the point of even talking to the Pakistanis. It turns out that this is exactly the conclusion the PM Modi came to early on in his tenure.

After public bonhomie with the Pakistani Prime Minister, including inviting him to Moody’s inauguration in 2014 and then attending his family wedding in Pakistan, a spate of terror attacks essentially turned mouldy cold as he was no longer interested in making peace with them or talking to them or indeed even engaging with them at any forum. Instead, what happened was that terror attacks designed to force India to the negotiating table, were met with heavy and serious retaliation. While it can be argued that the Uri-surgical strikes were not particularly new, the bombing of Balakot was a significant escalation which had never been done before. What it conveyed were three different messages: that India was willing to use air power (seen as highly escalatory) to retaliate terror attacks in a disproportionate manner, second that India would not restrict its retaliation simply to disputed Kashmir but hit hard inside Pakistan and finally, the pace of the bilateral relationship would be set by India proactively and not be in perpetual reaction to Pakistan’s mood swings.

With China, the tack has been different. Here, the tactic has been to talk as if there is no tension and to fight as if there are no talks happening. For example, during the Doklam crisis, India was willing to talk throughout, however, it was not willing to back off on its position on China’s road construction in a disputed land in Bhutan. I remember being in Beijing and just 100 km away from the front line on the Chinese side of the border. All my conversations with the Chinese at that point indicated that China was completely unprepared for this kind of resolute stand. In the past, India had simply accepted any changed status quo as fate accompli but this time not only was India unwilling to do that but also it was standing up for the territorial integrity of a third-party namely Bhutan. Yet within a few months, there was a summit meeting between PM Modi and Xi Jinping at Wuhan, and the Chinese completed the construction of the road in question. At that point, it seemed what the troops had won at Doklam was squandered away at the negotiating table in Wuhan. However, it emerges that this had little to do with India, rather it had much to do with the duplicity of the Bhutanese government. It emerges that essentially the Bhutanese did not have the stomach to stay down the Chinese and were in a state of denial over the piece of land. As it turns out, the Bhutanese seem to have gotten their comeuppance with several hundred square kilometres of their territory in the west being effectively taken over by the Chinese in 2020. Even then, Bhutan’s state of denial was so great that the ambassador in Delhi put out a denial that he was forced to retract after satellite images went public and Bhutan’s caged parrot press also had to do an embarrassing U-Turn.

Thankfully, this hasn’t been the case with India. In the past years, during the clashes in the Galwan region of Ladakh, Indian troops reaffirmed the Prime Minister’s stand that there would be no backing off. On the contrary, India was willing to go into Chinese-occupied territory to break a damn and re-assert India’s lower riparian water rights. The fact that we were willing to accept vitalities and a worsening of bilateral ties speaks volumes as to how far India has come today from its past pusillanimity taking slap after slap and pretending nothing had ever happened. The current disengagement plan is not perfect but it has given India the freedom to build infrastructure to match Chinese, however, it has accepted the status quo of superior Chinese infrastructure in the disengagement zone. While this will come back to bite us, it is nevertheless a significant paradigm shift from what we were willing to accept before.

No country is perfect and India is no exception to that rule. On our 75th Independence Day, it is worth remembering that India is still a work in progress as is our foreign and defence policy. It is worth noting, however, that the Modi government definitely seems to learn from its mistakes and tries not to repeat them. The execution is not perfect, however, it is far better than what it used to be in the past, and like every national project as we strive to improve the nation, we also strive to improve our policy is one step at a time.