India summarily cancelled the late-August foreign secretary level talks with Pakistan, which were scheduled consequent to Sharif’s visit to Delhi for Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. This has come as a surprise. Since the ostensible reason given is that the Pakistani envoy in Delhi met separatist elements of the Kashmiri leadership against the counsel of the Foreign Secretary, the reason given only adds to the surprise, since such meetings are usually unremarkable.
The assumption behind the meetings between Pakistanis and separatists has been that since Kashmiris wanted a place at the table and could not be accommodated in the bilateral format of the talks, their views would get represented in this manner. It is unlikely that India had not foreseen this meeting. Rushing its Foreign Secretary to call the ambassador with a blunt message that Pakistan either talks to separatists or the government appears an over-kill.
Equally fatuous is Arun Jaitley’s reasoning on the spurt in firing on the Line of Control, for such firing invariably heightens in the run up to talks with both sides conveying their resolve to the other through such muscle flexing. Also, the other elements were obvious, such as Sharif being a weak interlocutor and under siege. Clearly, the manner in which India has handled the issue calls for an explanation.
The foreign ministry can hardly be expected to be behind the move since it stood to gain by getting into the driver’s seat of the India-Pakistan process with resumption of talks. The resumption of talks earlier had also been led by the foreign secretaries. They had met in Thimpu in February 2011 after Manmohan Singh and Zardari had agreed to resume talks in a meeting on the sidelines of the SAARC summit in Thimpu in 2010.
That round of talks had been aborted in 2013 after the UPA government’s stupor in its second term was such that the political investment necessary to revive the process was rendered impossible in face of the border clash in January that year, in which an Indian soldier had been beheaded. This aborted precedent suggests the first explanation for the cancellation, namely, struggle between the two sides - those wanting talks and those against it.
The contention has been on for long, setting the context for the ups and downs of the relationship. AG Noorani in his well-researched take on the Agra summit has attributed India’s foot dragging to Advani. Musharraf recounting the episode in his autobiography informs Katju, the foreign office hand at the table, scuppering any prospects of gains. The tussle continued even in the time of the Congress regime. Hardliners won that round since a weakened Congress in its second tenure was unwilling to be outflanked by them.
This time round with the hardliners in the chair, the resumption of talks was more precarious with Pakistan’s increased provocations – over 80 instances - on the Line of Control through summer. In a speech in his second foray into Ladakh, the prime minister labeled this unequivocally as proxy war only a week ago. Pakistan had dismissed his statement as ‘baseless rhetoric’.
Hardliners perhaps felt they needed to demonstrate that with the change of guard in Delhi, India is no longer the ‘soft state’ that it was before. Talks cancellation helps dispel any belief in Pakistan’s ‘deep state’ on successful coercion of India into talks-resumption.
There are two further explanations. One is based on strategic logic. India’s deterrence in place against Pakistan is not of the order as to preclude proxy war. Its conventional rearmament is not complete as yet. For instance, avid military watcher, Rahul Bedi informs that its artillery arm is woefully short even to enable the ‘manoeuvers by fire’ as part of ‘cold start’ doctrine.
Further, Pakistan in late 2013 tested the tactical nuclear missile system, Nasr. These embolden Pakistan to up the ante in Kashmir. This long-anticipated juncture is now at hand since the US is readying to pull up stakes from the region soon. Therefore, it is not the right time for India to turn to talks since Pakistan would get the impression that this is from a position of weakness.
India has under the new government launched into a new programme of military upgrading. It has set apart $350 million in defence purchases this year. It has upped the foreign investment ceiling to 49 per cent in its military industrial complex. Modi has called for only under-35 year researchers in defence labs. The US has moved to the top of the table of arms exporters to India, the world’s largest arms importer, after the heavyweight back-to-back visits by Kerry and Hagel to Delhi.
These measures indicate that the pace of armament has increased. This is not only because the government is demonstrating more energy to distinguish itself from its predecessor, but also because it is shifting its strategic doctrine.
While Modi in his visit to Leh described India’s strategic doctrine as one of deterrence, India already has the ability to deter since in the same speech he also mentioned Pakistan’s movement to proxy war because of its inability to take Kashmir militarily. What India’s continued armament suggests is that India, unable to stop Pakistan’s proxy war, is determined to roll it back.
This implies a movement from deterrence to ‘compellence’. Once it is capable of compellence, Pakistan will receive the message loud and clear that Kashmir is non-negotiable and will settle for negotiations surrounding the other seven issues in the composite basket of talks that interest India.
However, even in such a grand strategic scheme, talks now would have bought India time to complete its rearmament since they would not have proceeded meaningfully in any case. For instance, even though India’s deterrence against China is falling into place slowly, with road building ongoing alongside raising of the mountain strike corps, India is engaging diplomatically with China. Its president is visiting New Delhi next month. Talks could have been a supplement on the Pakistan front too. The calling off of talks therefore does not have a strategic rationale.
The real reason: Man above the moment?
That brings one to the last possibility. It is in the person of the prime minister. Modi has been personalising governance. He was the face of Gujarat while he was at its helm. He is replicating that model of leadership in Delhi.
Not appointing a full time defence minister, Modi is himself keeping a keen eye on defence. He has already commissioned two naval ships, been to J&K twice over and visited BARC. He is to visit Siachen soon. His government has set aside money for the ‘one rank one pension’ scheme, which was approved but not implemented by the last government. He has given the go-ahead for the war memorial on India Gate lawns.
In this scheme of personalisation, there is no question of talks on Kashmir. India has already indicated it is an internal matter. Modi is looking at a culmination of his electoral victory in which the BJP gets within sight of Srinagar’s assembly in the coming polls.
It is a fallacy that foreign policy is based on external coordinates and strategic factors. It is, like most else, driven by internal politics, which in India’s case is currently entirely focused on the personality of the prime minister. Therefore, Pakistan’s attempt to foreground Kashmir in the talks needed to be repelled outright.
Modi through his war-leader act is relying on the army’s continued management of the status-quo in Kashmir. Hopefully, Pakistan’s inevitable challenge will not come as a surprise.