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The curtain to the East

43 11 34

If there is to be a regional policy takeaway from 2016, it is that New Delhi’s apathy for a rapprochement with Islamabad has only served to veer the bilateral relationship off-track.

With the recent posturing having blinkered efforts to bridge the divide, progress on the Indo-Pak diplomatic front channel has come to a grinding halt. Stonewalling Sartaj Aziz in Amritsar on the sidelines of Heart of Asia has made fairly obvious the near nonexistent appetite in New Delhi for peace – let alone dialogue.

No-war-no-peace is an alarmist state of play for any two neighbours, let alone a strategic normal for nuclear-armed states saddled with the gulf of a fraught and bloodied history between them. In Pakistan, strategic restraint – underwritten by a hard-won civilian-military consensus on national security, and recent military transition – has helped reiterate a multi-stakeholder commitment to regional stability. In India, new Army Chief Bipin Rawat’s warnings of future surgical strikes signal a dangerously flammable single-lens routinisation of South Asian bellicosity. It also enables a hyper-nationalist redrawing of the red-lines of bilateral conflict. This does not bode well for a region that was short on stability to begin with.

But the axial shifts cut both ways, and sober minds in Islamabad are increasingly wary of the blind alley that Indian aggression has driven the relationship into. Having staked his premiership on building strategic equity across the border – and now under political pressure at home – Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is unlikely to go off script on India in the coming months, or make further concessions or overtures until there is a palpable guarantee of Indian reciprocity.

This is not to say that silence from Islamabad should be misinterpreted as weakness. Far from it, any attempt by India to breach the LoC or engage in aggression along the Working Boundary is guaranteed to elicit a strict and swift response from Pakistan – which remains committed to defending its frontiers. Yet the policy responses in both capitals to the episodic crises of 2016 have been palpably different. Escalation was New Delhi’s go-to whereas Islamabad stayed the course with pragmatism and studied restraint.

This may not be a function of political impulse as much as it is an issue of attitudinal bandwidth. Delhi’s political-strategic elite today has considerably high stakes in a doctrinal standoff with Pakistan, and Islamabad’s does not. This explains why South Block’s foreign policy mainstay has equivocated from diplomatic coercion to full-on aggression since the BJP took over. The bad news is that the BJP’s return to the state election trail in 2017 almost certainly means that the door to diplomacy in the East has been firmly shut.

But, for all its hubris, New Delhi’s attempts to fabricate myths of containment and isolationism have had limited global takers, leaving Pakistan with an underestimated advantage. A new administration in Washington has already signalled its desire to do business with Pakistan. And even with Pakistan continuing to prioritise coexistence and economic........

© The News International