Talking to Pakistan will have no effect on terrorism; India must rethink its approach to diplomacy and incursions

History repeats itself, Marx famously said, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. The history of India-Pakistan relations has repeated itself so often in the past 15 years that it no longer seems even farcical. The pattern is tiresomely familiar. Terror attacks lead India to suspend diplomatic engagement until Pakistan moves against the perpetrators, but after a period of disengagement it is India that initiates dialogue resulting in the resumption of comprehensive engagement. And so the pendulum continues to swing. This week New Delhi yet again confronts the decision of whether to take forward the engagement with Pakistan.
Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s avowed desire to put ties with Pakistan on an even keel, his government—very like its predecessors—has struggled to strike the right balance. The decision to draw a red line under the Hurriyat neutralised the early gains of reaching out to Nawaz Sharif — just as the attempt to restrict the dialogue to terrorism floundered after the meeting in Ufa. The decision to resume a comprehensive dialogue was eminently sensible.
And Modi’s visit to Lahore underscored his political will to move ahead with Pakistan. In the wake of the recent attacks in Pathankot, however, the government has yet again linked diplomatic engagement with action against terrorists by Pakistan. Sharif has reportedly constituted a joint investigation team to probe the attacks. New Delhi’s response has so far been guarded.
Whether or not the foreign secretaries meet later this week, the government must be clear-eyed in its approach to Pakistan. The history of India-Pakistan relations in the last decade and a half suggests two related points. First, talking or not talking to Pakistan has no effect on terrorism.
Attacks on India have occurred both during periods of engagement and disengagement. Nor is there any discernible difference in the scale and style of attacks between these periods. The variations that can be observed have had more to do with India’s own preparedness and the wider international context.
Second, treating diplomacy as a reward for good behaviour by Pakistan is not an efficacious policy. By ostentatiously pulling out of diplomatic engagement, we may manage to soothe tempers at home or even direct some international pressure on Pakistan. Yet, invariably, the onus of resuming dialogue rests with us. Not only do the major powers prod us to talk to Pakistan but even our smaller neighbours do so. This was clearly one of the reasons why New Delhi decided to embark on comprehensive dialogue late last year. At this point, the great powers—the US, China and even Russia—need Pakistan to facilitate a dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government. It is unlikely, therefore, that they will lean too much on Pakistan. The response of the US as much as China to the Pathankot attacks indicates that any attempt by India to put Pakistan in the diplomatic dog-house will not succeed.
The challenge for the government is to craft policies towards Pakistan that recognise both these realities. On the diplomatic front, we need to be clear about why we want to engage with Pakistan and how we wish to do this. Sharif has evidently staked his political capital on improving ties with India. Even if the Pakistan army and the ISI are not on board they do not seem inclined to openly oppose him.
It is in India’s interest, then, to strengthen Sharif’s position—so long as he proves to be a credible interlocutor. Instead of linking diplomatic contact with demand for action against perpetrators, India should use diplomacy to test his willingness and ability to move in the right direction. Instead of worrying too much about domestic opinion, New Delhi should downplay the symbolic importance of meetings with Pakistan and present diplomacy as a normal activity. Modi’s trip to Lahore was an important step in this direction. He must use the bully pulpit to make the case for continued engagement.