“Cricket diplomacy” and the meeting of the Indian and Pakistan Home Secretaries are important because these were approved through the back channel maintained by Delhi with the Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani – the hub of power in Pakistan. Whatever one may think of the Pakistan Army, it is a professional force driven by cold calculation. If it thinks it can get away with some outré action or the other against India, it does not hesitate to prosecute it (think Kargil). Equally, it will do an about-turn and sue for “honourable peace” if some adventurist action misfires (recall General Parvez Musharraf’s prodding Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to seek US intervention in the Kargil conflict, and his virtual mea culpa of January 12, 2002 after the December 13 terrorist attack on Indian Parliament the previous year, in order to pre-empt a punitive Indian response and potentially uncontrollable escalation).
Apparently, General Kayani and his uniformed cohort believe that the policy of orchestrated terrorist outrages has run its course, at least for now, as the Pakistan Army, in the grip of excesses at home by the Tehriq-e-Taliban outfits, unremitting drone attacks by its American ally, and of the military pressure of the US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan on the Pashtuns of North Waziristan that’s skewing the delicate tribal balance the Pakistani state has obtained over the years in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, needs relief on its eastern border. The question is can India capitalize on what seems to be rethinking underway in the Pakistan Army?
Alas, there is surprisingly less give here than is generally assumed. Rewind to the aftermath of Sharm-el-Sheikh and how quickly Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was forced to backtrack on the issue of supposed concessions to his Pakistani counterpart. This is because India’s Pakistan policy is hostage to the petty calculations of the political class in the country and powerful Ministries within the Indian government with vested interest in portraying Pakistan as menace. Pakistan Army’s nursing of terrorism as an asymmetric tool to keep India discomfited sustains this impression. But it does not over-ride the facts of the neighbouring country being economically weak, politically in a pitiful state, and destabilized by unending violence and internal strife perpetrated by Islamic extremists. Nor does it preclude the need for a realistic assessment of the ‘Pakistan threat’ given the sheer disparities. Pakistan’s Gross Domestic Product, for instance, is less than one-quarter of the market capitalization of the Mumbai Stock Exchange!
The trouble is that for the Indian politician ties with Pakistan are an externalization of the sometimes tense Hindi-Muslim relations at home and both are manipulable for electoral gain. This is crass cynicism at work but the ‘Pakistan threat’ also powers the Indian military’s existing force disposition and structure. Thus, the army’s main force is deployed in the west, the short-legged Air Force is attuned mostly for contingencies involving Pakistan, and the Navy has its stock North Arabian Sea orientation. Then again, how else can three strike corps worth of tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and towed artillery accounting for 26% to 32% of the defence budget, be justified if not with reference to Pakistan? Meanwhile, the far more substantive and credible threat emanating from China is only minimally addressed.
The nine Light Mountain Divisions desperately required as offensive capability to keep the Peoples Liberation Army ensconced on the Tibetan plateau honest is nowhere as glamorous as armoured and mechanized formations. Like the Indian Administrative Service that ensures its group interests are never compromised come hell or high water, “cavalry” Generals too are loath to see a reduction of armoured strength sufficient only to thrust and parry against a weak adversary’s limited capability.
Indeed, Pakistan is now the touchstone to get the Government to wake up to even strategic deficiencies that are far more telling vis a vis China. Rapid Chinese strategic nuclear buildup was met with passivity, but recent Press reports about Pakistan surpassing Indian nuclear weapons strength galvanized the Government into ordering some remedial action.
Such Pakistan-centricity is ironic in light of the severely controlled wars of manoeuvre India is politically compelled to wage against Pakistan owing to the organic links of kinship and shared religion, culture, language, and social norms binding the two countries. There is, moreover, the factor of the politically conscious Muslim electorate wielding the swing vote in almost half the Lok Sabha constituencies, who may countenance bloodying Pakistan but not its destruction. Such systemic constraints are not acknowledged by either side but have been in force from the 1947-48 Kashmir operations onwards. In any case, which Indian government would order a military dismantling of the Pakistani state resulting in 180 million Muslims, pickled in fundamentalist juices for half a century, rejoining the Indian fold?
The Home Ministry, intelligence agencies, and central and state police organizations, animated by an institutional habit of mind, are, likewise, Pakistan-fixated, and feed the popular paranoia of a rogue Pakistan always preparing for the next terrorist spectacular on Indian soil. As the 2002 Op Parakram showed, the right response to Islamabad-supported jihadi actions is not mobilizing Field Armies but instantaneous retaliatory air strikes on terrorist installations in Pakistani Kashmir in tandem with targeted intelligence operations elsewhere in that country. Combine the stick of such pressure with the carrot of incentives to wean Pakistan from its hostility, such as unilateral easing of the visa regime, and offer of open trade and investment. It is a policy mix Delhi has not seriously pursued.
But, surely nuclear Pakistan poses a threat? Short of total demolition, which India has not intended even with conventional military means, Pakistan will be offered no excuse for going nuclear. However, if despite the nuclear taboo the General Staff in Rawalpindi contemplates nuclear weapon use for any reason, including in what passes for “wars” in these parts, they’ll be ultimately dissuaded by an “exchange ratio” prohibitively stacked against their country. Loss of two Indian cities is not recompense enough for the certain extinction of Pakistan. It is simply a bad bargain.
[Published in The Asian Age’ & ‘The Deccan Chronicle’, March 31, 2011, at www.asianage.com/columnists/rethinking-pakistan-898 ]