BJP Needs a Pakistan Policy History Lesson

Justifying India’s new get-tough approach toward Pakistan, M.J. Akbar, the national spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political home, argued last week that “There was 10 years of unrelenting goodwill” by Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, “but it achieved nothing in return.”

There is no doubt that Pakistan is a vexatious and duplicitous neighbor to all countries sharing borders with it. In particular, as the new books by C. Christine Fair and Carlotta Gall remind us, it must surely hold the patent on the use of non-state proxies to inflict injury on adjoining nations.

But is the specific claim advanced by Akbar – that Indian diplomacy toward Pakistan over the last decade was futile – accurate? Two huge pieces of contradictory evidence come to mind on this count. The first is the informal ceasefire agreement between Indian and Pakistani forces along the heavily-militarized Kashmir divide that held for nearly a decade following its conclusion in late 2003. True, the arrangement began to unravel in early 2013 when an upsurge in cross-border skirmishing caused then-Prime Minister Singh, an otherwise dogged champion of better ties with Islamabad, to announce that “there cannot be business as usual with Pakistan.”

Yet it is also worth noting how the ceasefire came into being in the first place. It was concluded a year following a prolonged military standoff between the two countries in 2002 that threatened to escalate into outright war and perhaps even nuclear conflict. Indeed, according to Praveen Swami, an Indian journalist who focuses on the Kashmir conflict, even as the 2002 crisis was playing out “an extraordinary series of secret meetings and contacts began to explore how future crises might be averted.” The Kashmir ceasefire grew out of this initiative and the decade-long respite allowed India to complete anti-infiltration fencing along the so-called Line of Control that separates the Indian and Pakistani portions of Kashmir.

A senior Indian army official stated recently that the fencing has turned the LOC into a “death trap” for many infiltrating militants. Swami adds that violence inside the Indian part of Kashmir declined noticeably as the fencing progressed. Moreover, the ceasefire’s beneficial effects extended to the Siachen Glacier, an uninhabitable stretch of the Himalayas north of Kashmir that is contested by Indian and Pakistani military forces. According to Nitin A. Gokhale, the security & strategic affairs editor at NDTV, Indian battle casualties there dropped to zero once the arrangement went into effect.

The second piece of evidence neglected by Akbar and his BJP colleagues is the intensive back-channel peace process both sides undertook in 2004-2007 that reportedly was on the verge of stabilizing the Kashmir dispute. (For more background, see here, here, here and here). Speaking to the media earlier this year, Singh declared that “an important breakthrough was in sight” until political troubles inside Pakistan led to Pervez Musharraf’s downfall. Satinder Lambah, Singh’s special envoy to the talks, has sketched out the provisions of the tentative agreement, which included freezing the territorial status-quo in Kashmir, as well as both sides granting substantive autonomy to the parts of Kashmir they control and allowing freer movement of goods and people across the Line of Control. Moreover, C. Raja Mohan, a distinguished Indian journalist, notes the diplomatic momentum was so great during this period that accords on the disputes over Siachen and Sir Creek, a patch of marshland dividing the Indian state of Gujarat and the Pakistani province of Sindh, similarly appeared within reach.

Combining effective deterrence with substantive engagement is a difficult proposition when it comes to Pakistan. So far, Modi has focused on the first element of the equation while neglecting the second. But he would do well to consider the experience of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the first BJP leader to serve as India’s prime minister. In an ambitious diplomatic overture toward Pakistan following South Asia’s nuclearization in the late 1990s, Vajpayee traveled to Lahore for a landmark summit with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The meeting was widely hailed as beginning a new era in bilateral affairs. The resulting momentum was quickly cut short, however, when a large body of Pakistani forces crossed the Line of Control and seized large swaths of rugged territory around Kargil, a town in the mountainous reaches of northern Kashmir. In response, New Delhi launched a fierce and sustained counterattack.

The ensuing battle in the summer of 1999 featured intense ground fighting, heavy artillery barrages and the first combat sorties undertaken by the Indian air force since the 1971 Bangladesh conflict. India also placed its entire military establishment on high alert and deployed mechanized forces to the international border with Pakistan. The conflict was finally defused by a combination of Indian battlefield successes and US diplomatic pressure on Pakistan. Although exact combat losses are not known, India suffered nearly 500 battle deaths, with Pakistani losses estimated at 400-700 fatalities.

Bilateral relations became even more fraught a few months later when an Indian Airlines flight from Nepal to New Delhi was high-jacked by a Pakistan-based jihadi group. The week-long drama ended only when India humiliatingly agreed to release three imprisoned militants.

Yet Vajpayee’s anger from these events did not keep him from again attempting to find a modus vivendi with Pakistan. A summit meeting in Agra with Pervez Musharraf was arranged in the summer of 2001, though it ended in disarray and was followed at the end of the year by a brazen assault upon the Indian parliament by Pakistan-based militants.

Calling the attack “the most dangerous challenge so far to India’s national security,” Vajpayee put India on a vast war footing, including deploying three strike corps along the border with Pakistan, which reacted with a massive counter-mobilization. In short order, a million soldiers were arrayed in combat readiness posts on both sides of the border. Following a new bout of US diplomatic intervention, tensions only began to abate significantly by the summer months and the crisis concluded anticlimactically by October 2002.

Yet even with this exasperating history, within months Vajpayee once more put out an olive branch. In April 2003, he journeyed to Kashmir and told a public gathering that: "As Prime Minister of the country I wanted to have friendly relations with our neighbors and I went to Lahore, but it was returned with Kargil. We still continued and invited General Pervez Musharraf to Agra but again failed. We are again extending a hand of friendship but hands should be extended from both the sides. Both sides should decide to live together.”

Vajpayee got a chance to put these words into action when the Kashmir ceasefire was concluded later that year and again in January 2004 when he used the occasion of a South Asian regional summit in Islamabad to launch the diplomatic process that nearly came to flower a few years later during Singh’s tenure as prime minister.

With state assembly elections in Kashmir wrapping up later this month, it’s time for Modi to rebalance his policy toward Islamabad and build on the diplomatic work of his immediate predecessors. Deterrence is a necessary condition for maintaining peace with a nettlesome Pakistan. But he will sooner or later realize that it is far from sufficient.

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm, and head of its South Asia practice group.