Ingenuous Indian Diplomacy

The Economic Times, November 12, 2011


It is well known that Indian politicians are hard-headed while serving their personal interests but faint-hearted while dealing with national interests. India’s Pakistan policy, for example, remains based on hopes and gushy expectations, rather than any farsighted strategy. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh still dreams of open borders with terror-exporting Pakistan.

The Indian wishful thinking on Pakistan was on public display at the just-concluded SAARC summit in the Maldives, where Singh hyped his bilateral meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani as if Gilani were the top decision-maker in Pakistan.

More important, Gilani thanked India for its two recent favours: At the WTO not vetoing the European Union’s special trade concessions for Pakistan, and helping Pakistan to enter the UN Security Council. Singh, however, has secured no reciprocal concession from Pakistan, not even the actual grant of most-favoured-nation status to India.

Fifteen years after India gave Pakistan MFN status, the Pakistani Cabinet last week decided merely to open bilateral negotiations on a reciprocal MFN grant. Islamabad is seeking to leverage an action that it is obligated to undertake under WTO rules. The lack of MFN reciprocity has thus far blocked the opening of normal Indo-Pakistan trade and required most traded products to move via a third country like the UAE. Yet, even before normal trade has opened, India at the Maldives meeting promised a Preferential Trade Agreement with Pakistan.

The EU trade concessions to Pakistan are significant because they exempt as many as 75 Pakistani products from duties for three years. This will allow Pakistan to earn several hundred million euros annually through tariff-free exports to the large, 27-nation EU market while undercutting similar Indian exports.

At the WTO’s trade committee, India first objected to this EU move because it flouts the WTO rules for a level-playing field among trading partners. But last month — after receiving several demarches from EU states — India withdrew its objection, without having secured anything in return from Pakistan.

In a fundamentally competitive world marked by the aggressive pursuit of relative gains, Indian diplomacy has stood out for not learning from mistakes and continuing to operate on ingenuous premises. It is not uncommon for Indian leaders to feed to the nation dreams sold to them by others — or their own personal dreams.

In dealing with Pakistan, India has assumed that Islamabad will do what New Delhi does well — jettison beliefs, perceptions and policies overnight. Pakistan has no intention of discarding terrorism as an instrument of state policy. Even with the US, Pakistan still plays games, continuing to shield its own militant proxies despite coming under mounting American pressure. If the powerful US has been unable to rein in Pakistan’s actions in the Afghanistan theatre, can India realistically persuade Islamabad to go after the terrorist groups it has nurtured?

Whereas Pakistan’s India policy has remained consistent for long, India’s Pakistan policy continues to send out contradictory and confusing signals. Just three days after the Indian home secretary said there has been no change in Pakistan’s official support for terrorism against India, the aging and increasingly clueless external affairs minister declared this week that the trust deficit with Pakistan is “shrinking.” Singh, for his part, hailed Gilani — widely regarded as the Pakistani military’s man — as “a man of peace.”

No less disturbing is the timing of India’s new bonhomie with Pakistan just when the latter has come under increasing US pressure. The mood in America has changed to the extent that strategists are openly calling for the “containment” of Pakistan, with one author even suggesting that the U.S. should “start regarding it as an enemy — at least as far as the Afghan War is concerned.”

Instead of taking advantage of the new American spotlight on Pakistan’s roguish conduct, New Delhi has done exactly the opposite: It has come to the aid of Islamabad by singing the virtues of an “uninterrupted and uninterruptible” dialogue and seeking to “write a new chapter” of peace. In fact, the external affairs minister publicly advised the US and Pakistan, “two friendly powers,” to amicably settle all “outstanding” issues, as if terrorism is not an outstanding matter in the Indo-Pakistan relationship.

Worse still, India has effectively sidelined the issue regarding the involvement of Pakistani state actors in the 26/11 terrorist strikes. By agreeing to welcome a supposed judicial commission from Pakistan, India is only aiding the Pakistani game-plan to shield the key masterminds through dilatory and deflective tactics and to create an impression that a due process is under way.

One possible explanation for India’s coming to Pakistan’s succour at this hour — a course that actually mocks the memory of the 26/11 victims — is that Singh needs to divert attention away from corruption scandals that have undermined his credibility and brought him under a political siege. Because nothing seems to be going right for him domestically, he has stepped up foreign travels and hyped progress in diplomatic ties with Pakistan.

Singh’s fixation on quasi-failed Pakistan has been an enduring element of his stint in office — an obsession that has made him shy away from drawing the right lesson from his past blunder at Sharm el-Sheikh (where he included Baluchistan in the agenda) or at Havana (where he turned the terror sponsor into a fellow victim of terror and set up the infamous Joint Anti-Terror Mechanism).

If India’s Pakistan policy is adrift, it is not entirely due to Singh, however. It was Singh’s predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who laid the foundation of an ad hoc, personality-driven, meandering approach toward Pakistan that said goodbye to institutionalized policymaking.

The weak-in-the-knees Vajpayee took India on a jarring roller-coaster ride with an ever-shifting policy on Pakistan. It was under Vajpayee that personal rather than professional characteristics began to define India’s policy. And it was Vajpayee’s Agra invitation that helped Pervez Musharraf to come out of the international doghouse for staging a military coup. Singh is following in Vajpayee’s footsteps.

The author is a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.

(c) The Economic Times, 2011.