Paradoxically, the only way for India to have successful peace talks with Pakistan is by building its military capacity.
Prior to the foreign secretaries meeting in January, this blog had examined the main rationale underpinning the myth of equating talks with Pakistan to peace with Pakistan. Just before the SAARC summit at Thimpu, a couple of variations of that rationale had again cropped up and they continue to be repeated ad nauseam since.
The first one is couched in grand economic terms. India needs peace with Pakistan to grow economically, which means that Indian growth is dependent on its turbulent relationship with Pakistan. But if we consider the last two decades, India’s period of strongest economic growth has been concomitant with the period when it was a victim of maximum terror from across the border. While peace with Pakistan will be a requirement for India to sustain its growth sometime in the future, we are far behind that point on the curve right now.
A related argument is that an aspiring great power like India can’t be boxed down to the region by minor irritants like Pakistan. If India has to swank on the world stage, it must act unilaterally to resolve outstanding issues with Pakistan. Put differently, peace with Pakistan at any cost is a price India must be willing to pay for its global aspirations. Notwithstanding the differences with Indo-Pak scenario, it would be instructive to look at China’s example here. China has had major problems with all its neighbours — most notably it still has a major unresolved problem with Taiwan — but this has not kept China pinned down to the region. In fact the sequencing in the Indian thought is all wrong: you don’t become a great power by solving long-standing problems at any cost, but you solve those problems automatically when you become really powerful.
In effect, the strategic challenge for the Indian leadership is not to find ways and means to engage — and get re-hyphenated — with Pakistan. It is to make Pakistan irrelevant to the larger Indian scheme of things in the long-term.
Then why is India so hell-bent on talking to Pakistan now: because there is no choice, for the alternative to talks with Pakistan is war?
Right and wrong. Right, there is no alternative to talking to Pakistan. But the choice is not between talks and war, the choice is between talking from a position of weakness or from a position of strength — out of compulsion or out of choice; meaningless raillery or meaningful engagement.
You talk from a position of strength when your soft speech is backed by a big stick, the big stick in this case being credible military capacity. This is one of the biggest paradoxes of possessing a strong military: A strong military is the biggest guarantor of peace. If the military capacity is credible, the peace talks work and there is no war. In contrast, when a nation lacks credible military strength, it talks from a position of weakness and begets either war or humiliation.
It is obvious that India currently lacks such credible military capacity. Indubitably, Mr Antony’s tenure as the defence minister has seen a steady erosion of the existing military capability over the last few years. The evidence of the damage done to India’s military capacity by Mr Antony’s trade unionist mindset and holier than thou approach was visible in the aftermath of Mumbai terror attacks, when India was unable to even generate a worthwhile military option against Pakistan. It should have been a wakeup call for the nation then. But even 18 months down the road, the nation seems to have learned few lessons from that incident.
However there is still hope because India has the luxury of time available to it while dealing with Pakistan. As India can continue to grow in the mid-term irrespective of the state of its relations with Pakistan, it can utilise that window to rebuild its military capabilities.
Let us look at it a bit differently. Imagine if the non-state actors are able to lay their hands on a crude nuclear device and detonate it in a busy Indian metropolis, how would India react? Mind you, this is not a rhetorical question. The spectacular terror attacks are by definition Black Swan events or else they would be averted by the system before they occur. Take your mind back to the terror attack on Parliament or the terror attack in Mumbai and how improbable they seemed before the events actually happened. The aim of this scenario building here is not to indulge in scaremongering but to consider our reactions when the red line is actually crossed. And the lack of options is scary.
There is a misplaced belief among many Indians that the government’s reluctance to exercise a military option after a terror attack is merely a reflection of its lack of political will. It never occurs to them that this could perhaps also be a telling comment on India’s military capacity, or rather the lack of it.
Thus the real challenge for the Prime Minister today is not to talk to Pakistan but to regenerate India’s military capacity. If Dr Singh wishes to expend some political capital, rather than waste it on talking to an ineffective civilian leadership in Pakistan, he should instead concentrate on undertaking a root-and-branch reform of the Indian national security setup, including the armed forces. If there is a worthwhile legacy that Dr Manmohan Singh can leave behind after his second term as the Prime Minister of India, it will be to create an all-round, across-the-spectrum military capability that is credible enough to back India’s peace talk, and forceful enough to act decisively when the Red Line is crossed.
Afterthought — If India is talking with Pakistan to keep up the pretensions, get international pressure off its back and bide time, then it is an even worse scenario. Simply because it makes India susceptible to more pressure not only on this issue, but also on other issues of national importance. Alternatively, if India uses this period of talking with Pakistan to seriously build its military capacity, these talks would have served some purpose. Alas, that doesn’t seem to be happening.