Pakistan unsurprisingly occupies a predominant place on our foreign policy turf for the reason that our approach to this hostile neighbor is impacted not only by India's strategic partnership with the U.S. but also by the state of our bilateral relations with Russia and China and the consistent stand India had taken against terror in spite of the uncertainties that had lately cropped up around the 'war on terror'. In the context of the political narrative that the opposition in India has generated in the aftermath of India's recent air strike on the Jaish-e-Mohammad camp at Balakot in Pakistan – wherein the virtues of talking to a 'neighbor' are invoked – our policy makers need to make it clear that India's problem is with the deep state of Pakistan, not with the people of that country.
India-Pakistan relations are not about 'people-to-people contact' anymore, linked as they are to the challenge of dealing with a regime under the effective control of a hostile army that gave no space to the people's voice. In any case, substantial chunks of the population there are now either under the influence of Islamic fundamentalists and the hardened Ulema or are swayed by the anti-India tirade of the extremely communal elite that had entrenched itself in the body politic of that country. The anti-India legacy of Partition is kept alive by them, particularly after the creation of Bangladesh, and this sustains the overriding hold of the Pakistan army as the 'savior' of their country.
What is truly alarming from India's point of view is that the firm collaboration existing between the army and the Islamic militants in Pakistan has now acquired domestic legitimacy in that country. This has enabled Pakistan's rulers to survive the criticism of the democratic world against Pakistan for providing safe havens to terrorists across the Islamic spectrum – ranging from the Taliban-Al Qaeda combine to Lashkar-e-Taiba, JeM and the Hizbul Mujahideen – as also the American pressure on the Pakistan Army not to play a duplicitous role on the Afghan front.
Pakistan is shrewdly aware of its geo-political importance for the U.S., Russia and China and is deftly positioning itself as a helping hand for them. U.S. President Donald Trump wants Pakistan to facilitate the American pullout from Afghanistan, the oldest theater of the 'war on terror', and smoothen the path of restoration of a peaceful regime there even with the participation of Taliban in that experiment.
Russia and China want Pakistan on their side in the matter of keeping their own Muslim lands insulated from external instigation from Islamic extremists. In the Cold War era, Pakistan operating through Afghanistan as a Western ally caused faith-based insurgency to grow in Uzbekistan and Xinjiang. Pakistan is watching the Afghan scene with smugness over the fact of some levers being in its hands and is prepared to go along with the U.S. initiatives in Afghanistan provided India was kept out of the frame there.
India has to watch out for Pakistan trying to use whatever support it can muster for building a case for resumption of the India-Pakistan dialogue. Playing the underdog, Pakistan has cleverly asked China to give up its technical objection to the UN move against Masood Azhar in return for a guarantee of 'de-escalation' from India. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, in a display of cussedness that is easily traceable to his army, responded to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi's message of greetings on Pakistan Day in a way that speaks for itself.
Modi's message had conveyed India's hope that the two countries would work for creating a climate free of terrorism but Imran's reply abstained from making any mention of terror emanating from his soil and blandly asked for resumption of dialogue to discuss the 'core issue' of Jammu and Kashmir and other matters. Pakistan is brazening out the situation of potential isolation it finds itself in, after the Indian air strike at Balakot received validation from the world community — Pakistan's plea that the militant outfits were not under its control gave a moral justification to the Indian operation. None of this, however, is keeping Pakistan from relentlessly trying to get India to climb down from its declared policy that 'terror and talks do not go together'.
It would be prudent for India's strategic planners to presume that the advantage India presently has over Pakistan is not static and that a combination of factors already seen on the horizon will tend to bail out Pakistan on the issue of cross border terrorism against India. Pakistan's deep state cannot be pressured beyond a point to sever its political links with forces within the country that used the call of 'defense of Islam' or jihad to fight an identified enemy, since in Islam the faith embraces the entire life of the individual — personal, social and political. Also, a major source of sustenance for Pakistan is the implied support it will always get in the Organization of Islamic Conference led by Saudi Arabia which runs on the philosophy that 'Quran was the best Constitution' and does not regard a democratic state as being any better than an Islamic state. The secular character of the Indian state has not come in the way of Imran Khan's regime trying to fish in the troubled waters of our domestic politics in the run-up to the general election here. Imran Khan has again insinuated that the Modi regime was not resuming talks with Pakistan because of electoral politics.
If Pakistan gets a strategic advantage in Afghanistan it will use it against India. The U.S. policy makers are not doing much to keep India as a stakeholder in the future set up of Afghanistan. The U.S. may pull out of Afghanistan on a half-baked deal which will benefit Pakistan, not India. Our defenses on the western front will have to be strengthened to deal with an escalated proxy offensive of Pakistan in Kashmir in case the Pakistan-supported Taliban get into a position of power in Afghanistan.
In the situation obtaining after the Balakot episode, Pakistan is shifting the onus for initiating a conventional war onto India without at the same time relaxing on its planned covert offensive in Kashmir to keep what it calls the 'core issue' between India and Pakistan in the focus of the world attention. In the meanwhile, it is hoping that after its wishy-washy attempts to show that action was being taken against the LeT and JeM, international opinion would gravitate towards the idea of resumption of India-Pakistan talks.
Pakistan's deep state is now too involved and collusive towards Islamic militants of all shades to give up on them as instruments of state policy. India is exposed to the unceasing attempts of Pakistan to exploit India's domestic scene for spreading radicalization here. India is rightly going ahead with its plans of modernizing its defense forces and building capacities in missile and space technologies but the lasting threat nearer home is from the enlarging faith-based militancy emanating from the large Muslim world around us. The values of democracy in India need to be protected against the subversive violence whipped up in the name of religion and beamed at us from across the borders. This long-range threat to our security should be kept above party politics.
(The writer is a former director of the Intelligence Bureau.)