Why have Prime Ministers from the BJP Consistently Faltered in their Policies on Pakistan?

Pervez Musharraf, the former president of Pakistan, with Atal Behari Vajpayee, the former prime minister of India after a meeting in New Delhi in April 2005. REUTERS/B Mathur VM/AH
05 October, 2016

What is it about prime ministers from the Bharatiya Janata Party that gets them so entangled in the question on Pakistan? It first happened with Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999 and then in 2001. It has now happened with Narendra Modi in 2015 and in 2016. Both these prime ministers have followed similar cycles that began with enthusiastic overtures towards Pakistan—evoking euphoria among both the liberals and those in the BJP. There then arrived the counter-point when there was a negative event that emanated from Pakistan, and the overtures seemed to be of irrational expansiveness in retrospect.

On 20 February 1999, when Vajpayee took a bus to Pakistan and crossed the Wagah border, he reportedly described it as a “defining moment” in South-Asian history.  By July that year, Pakistan and India were engaged in the Kargil war. Although Indian leaders were quick to claim an absolute and uncontested victory, the military operation took a huge toll in terms of the number of soldiers lost in the bid to reclaim territory along the line of control. As Anit Mukherjee, an a former officer from the Indian army and an assistant professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), reported in an article published in The Caravan in February 2014, this number continues to be shrouded in ambiguity. In November 2012, it was reported in parliament that the losses had amounted to 530 soldiers. However, Mukherjee noted, a section on the official website of the Indian army, which has since removed the information, stated that 970 soldiers had been lost during the war. In January 2000, the Kargil Review Committee, headed by K Subrahmanyam, a former civil servant and strategic affairs expert, submitted its report on the war to Vajpayee. The committee pointed towards a lack of coordination among the various intelligence agencies in India. In fact, as a former army official who had occupied a senior position during that time, told me, the Kargil war was not very different from the debacle of India’s war with China in 1962. According to him, India was just as unprepared and there were lapses in the work of its intelligence agencies.

In 2001, Vajpayee made a second attempt to revive relations with Pakistan. In May that year, he sent General Pervez Musharraf a letter inviting him to India for talks to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict between the countries. A much-hyped summit in Agra followed in July, but it turned out to be a fiasco. Mushararaf, who capitalised on his status as an object of curiosity within the Indian media at that time, directly reached out to Indian editors. He spoke to them with a candour that is uncharacteristic of the participants of such visits, frequently employing rhetoric to manoeuvre his way out of accountability for the failed bilateral.

The next stumbling block in the relationship between India and Pakistan during Vajpayee’s term emerged with an attack by armed militants on the Indian parliament on 13 December, three months after the attack in New York and Washington on 11 September. India asked its ambassador in Islamabad at that time, Vijay K Nambiar to return and reduced the strength of its diplomatic staff at the embassy. Bus and train services between the two countries were halted. Soon after, the Indian army moved to the border. Pakistan responded by stationing its troops there as well. The Indian army retreated nearly a year later, in October 2002.

At the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit that was held at Kathmandu in January 2002, Musharraf gave another media performanceat the venue. During his address at the opening ceremony of the summit, he emphasised that big countries—referring to India—are not more equal than others. Towards the end, however, Musharraf added that he “genuinely and sincerely” extended a hand of friendship to Vajpayee. After this proclamation, he strode from the lectern to the table at which Vajpayee was seated along with others heads of states and extended his hand. Vajpayee stood up and shook Musharraf’s hand to loud applause. Once the summit ended, Musharraf held a press conference at Kathmandu, which was widely attended by members from both the Indian and Pakistani media. At the conference, he deemed it fit to speak about the relationship between Indian and Pakistan.

Two years later, in January 2004, when the SAARC summit was held in Islamabad, Vajpayee and Musharraf issued a joint statement in which, “President Musharraf reassured Prime Minister Vajpayee that he will not permit any territory under Pakistan's control to be used to support terrorism in any manner.”  Although this statement was an ostensibly positive step, it did not do much to improve the souring relationship between India and Pakistan.

Turn now, more than a decade later, to Modi. In a grandiloquent gesture he invited the heads of governments of all South Asian states for his swearing-in ceremony in May 2014. Several starry-eyed admirers and critics—many of them seasoned diplomats and generals—praised him for the masterstroke. Hardly anyone appeared to identify the immaturity underlining the decision. The transition of different governments within any country remains an internal affair. It is not akin to the crowning of an emperor in a monarchical state during which other countries come to pay tribute.  In a similar fashion, a year later, on Christmas, Modi made a stop-over at Lahore while he was flying back from Kabul to New Delhi. He reportedly made the decision when he called Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister of Pakistan, earlier that day to wish him on his birthday. In Pakistan, Modi travelled with Sharif to Raiwind, where celebrations for Sharif’s grand-daughter’s wedding were underway.

This euphoric bubble burst in January 2016, when armed militants attacked an airbase in Pathankot. Soon after, trouble erupted in Kashmir when Burhan Wani, the divisional commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, was killed on 8 July after a brief gun-battle with Indian security forces in South Kashmir’s Kokernag. Protests broke out across the region, ballooning into clashes between the residents and the security forces. The use of pellets by the forces left hundreds of civilians, many of them children, critically wounded. On 15 July,  Sharif declared that Wani was a martyr and said that 19 July would be observed as “Black Day” in Pakistan to express solidarity with the people of Kashmir. A month later, on 15 August, India’s independence day, Modi hit back during his speech and made pointed references to Pakistan’s atrocities against the people of Balochistan.

While tempers were running short on both sides, came another attack by armed militants, this time at a military base in Uri in Kashmir on 18 September. This attack claimed the lives of 19 soldiers. It was reportedly followed by a surgical strike, conducted by the Indian army on the intervening night between 28 and 29 September. India and Pakistan, many believe, are standing on the brink of war.

There are signs that the two sides are backing off. During a speech he delivered after inaugurating the Pravasi Bharatiya Kendra on 2 October, Modi said India was not “hungry for territory.” He was responding to the Pakistani army and its political class, that have stated that they would not tolerate any attack on the sovereignty of their country, which implies territorial integrity.  Presumably, such a stance was also helpful for Pakistan to deny its image as an aggressor, since it insinuated that it was merely defending its own territory. Modi’s statement was probably intended to counter this trope. It would also mean that India does not intend to annex Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir (POK). This was ironic, since India’s rhetorical claim has been that the territory that comes under POK belongs to India as part of Jammu and Kashmir. Indians, both in the military and political establishment, are acutely aware that it would be difficult to hold on to POK even if India were successful in taking it.

Late at night on 2 October, militants attacked a military camp at Baramulla in Kashmir. There is a pattern emerging in these strikes. They are not intended to hurt civilians, as was the case in the attacks in Mumbai in 2005 and 2008. In Jammu and Kashmir, the objective appears to be to hurt the army. This is evident in the attacks in both Uri and Baramulla. This may well be because the militants realise that they would lose their legitimacy in the region if civilians were to be killed. They may also be hoping to win over ordinary people in the valley, since there is growing resentment against the actions of the security forces there.

On 3 October, news reports stated that the national security advisers (NSAs) on both sides, Ajit Doval from India and Naseer Janjua from Pakistan, are in touch with each other. The bluff of attack and counter-attack has finally been called, In any case, India’s strike was not meant to be sustained until it had dented the entire network of armed militants across the Line of Control. It is pretty clear that a single raid would not make that happen. Such an onerous task would require a long drawn-out, low-intensity war with the militants, and could last several years. The Americans have been fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan for over a decade-and-a-half, and there is no sign of a clear and decisive victory. But the Modi government was interested in making a point, and the surgical strike helped it make one.

The major difference between the stand-offs that occurred in 2002 and in 2016, 14 years later, is this. In 2002, the Americans, the British and the French were worried about the possibility of a war between the two nuclear-weapon armed neighbours in South Asia. There were several high profile visits between 20 July 2002 and 2 August 2002 to New Delhi and Islamabad—these included those made by Jack Straw, then the British foreign secretary; the former European Union High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, Colin Powell; then the United States secretary of state, Richard Amritage; the former United States deputy secretary of state and Dominique de Villepin, who was the French foreign minister at that time.

In 2016, western countries are more focused on the failed ceasefire in Syria and the Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops growing dominance over Aleppo, the rebels’ stronghold, with the help of Russia. The West is not as concerned with a standoff in South Asia. In 2002, Straw, Solana, Powell and de Villepin publicly spoke about the Kashmir issue. In 2016, Kashmir is no more a part of  the international agenda.

In 2002, the West was also enamoured with Musharraf. There was a simple motive behind this indulgence of a man who came to power through a coup, though there were compelling reasons to execute it. The US and the rest of the west needed Pakistan to hound the Al Qaeda and fight the Taliban, which they did. Pakistan became a useful and necessary ally in the West’s global war against these outfits. Although the Americans still use bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan to carry out drone attacks against the Taliban on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Pakistan’s strategic importance has diminished.

The other difference is that Pakistan is now fighting its own Taliban, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, which was not on its domestic horizon in 2002.

Yet, for India, the intriguing question remains. Why is it that the prime ministers from the BJP, Vajpayee and Modi, are drawn to Pakistan? Why is it that they reach out to Islamabad with barely contained zeal and why is it that this outreach ends on a bitter note?