In the post-Balakot dynamic, the old idea of linking talks to terror is obsolete

by Shivam Vij

All diplomacy,” said Communist China’s first premier Zhou Enlai, is a “continuation of war by other means”. The statement was a play on the famous line by Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz: “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”

For many long years, India’s Pakistan policy has been seen as a choice of two bad alternatives: talks or guns, diplomacy or war, peace or hostility. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi begins his second term in office, he is uniquely positioned to break the binaries. It doesn’t have to be either talks or guns; they can go together.

When Modi and Pakistan PM Imran Khan meet in June in Bishkek, it will be easy to begin another half-hearted and lazy bilateral process that would easily be halted by another big terror attack. That has been the banal history of India-Pakistan peace efforts. It is time to break that mould.

The India-Pakistan dynamic today is not what it was in 2014. Modi has sought to establish a new normal with Pakistan, which is to respond to big terror attacks with militarily might. These military responses in 2016 and 2019 have, at the very least, solved the problem of public opinion. No longer can it be said that the Indian government is looking weak before the Indian public thanks to terror attacks.

It is, therefore, obvious that the old paradigm of “talks and terror can’t go together” is obsolete. It is inexplicable that India is willing to engage Pakistan militarily but not diplomatically. “Talks” should no longer be linked to “terror”, since “terror” is now being taken care of by “surgical strikes”.

Diplomatic Games

Consider how Pakistan has been using bilateral diplomacy to get the better of India. Without piping down on its Kashmir rhetoric, Pakistan unilaterally announced its decision to open the Kartarpur Sahib Gurudwara for Indian pilgrims, even without visa. The decision left the Modi government with no options, since rebuffing Pakistan’s offer would have made Indian look bad before its own Sikh community. Pakistan used the sentiments of the Sikh population to force India to deal with Pakistan, contrary to its stated position of a bilateral freeze.

As Pakistan captured Indian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman, it was wise to quickly announce his release to de-escalate tensions. Perhaps that was the only option Pakistan had, given the international pressure on both countries to de-escalate tensions, but it nevertheless used the opportunity to show Imran Khan as a peacenik.

It is thus important for India to get out of the mould of seeing direct bilateral engagement with Pakistan as a concession or a weakness. On the contrary, India should see direct bilateral engagement as an opportunity to gain concessions from Pakistan.

A Long War

It is clear to everyone that the India-Pakistan stalemate is not going to be solved in a jiffy. Pakistan’s proxy warfare strategy is not a short-term strategy but a long-term one. The armed forces of both countries similarly run their militaries with a long-term strategy against each other. If you hear security and strategic experts, they talk in terms of decades. Why, then, should bilateral diplomatic engagement be thought of in terms of weeks and months?

Talks, many Indians often complain, take us nowhere. What do they achieve? But the military tensions, the LoC firings, the surgical strikes also don’t take us to another place, better or worse. India and Pakistan have mastered the fine balance of the status quo. Both sides seem to revel in maintaining the status quo.

They could similarly have a permanent talk process that thinks in terms of decades, sets low expectations, and should not be called off with a terror strike that will anyway see a military response from India. If New Delhi was able to de-link Kartarpur and the larger peace process, talks and terror can also be de-linked.

Want of Trying

There have been 21 rounds of talks between India and China to solve the China-India border dispute. No resolution is in sight. Despite Chinese aggression and attempts to take Indian territory, talks go on. Perhaps they’ve achieved nothing, but what harm did they cause? And perhaps they did achieve something – helping maintain the status quo.

It is high time India and Pakistan set up a long-term bilateral process, with separate talks on terrorism and security, territorial disputes, trade, prisoners, visas and so on. How will India gain anything from bilateral negotiations if it doesn’t even try? Just as a military response is seen as necessary in the face of terror strikes, so is diplomatic engagement. As Zhou Enlai and Clausewitz suggest, diplomacy and war are one and the same thing: pursuit of national self-interest.