From the embrace of Lahore to the siege in Pathankot: India and Pakistan in 2016

New Delhi,Kabir Taneja: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unforeseen plan to visit Lahore in Pakistan on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s birthday caught most people off-guard. Even as officials suggested the visit was impromptu while he was on his way back from Kabul in Afghanistan, not many were convinced. It is believed that the stopover was chalked out when the two leaders met in Paris on the sidelines of the climate change talks, and the national security advisors of India and Pakistan did the final penciling in of the plan when they met in Thailand.

Pathankot attack

However, this move to build an environment of rapprochement was not unexpected. The ‘strong-man’ persona around Modi, largely built up by his supporters, in 2014 made it seem that a much more aggressive stance on Pakistan may be imminent. This was never to be once the Modi-led BJP swept the polls and dislodged the stuttering government of the Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), as the realities of the Pakistan question were eventually to take over the post-victory euphoria.

Modi’s trip to Pakistan was precariously drawn out. He did not go to Islamabad, which diluted the political weight of the visit and kept him away from the power centre of the Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi. His office made sure that clarity was achieved over his stopover being to wish Sharif on his birthday along with blessing his granddaughter on her wedding, adding a personal touch of support to Sharif’s political weight in Pakistan itself that is often at odds against the country’s extremely powerful military complex.

Strengthening of democratic institutions in Pakistan’s fragile political establishment is perhaps what India tried to support during this manoeuvre. Pakistan’s current Army chief, General Raheel Sharif (not related to Nawaz Sharif), is a popular figure amongst many in Pakistani polity and society. His popularity, along with the history of a very powerful Army that has launched three successful coups since gaining independence in 1947, is seen by India as an increasing threat not just to its interests, but Pakistan’s civil institutions as well. This distribution of power hold in Pakistan is one of the challenges that not just India seeks to understand and wisely support the correct actors, but even Pakistan’s close allies such as the United States, which on poor internal advice continues to provide both weapons and financial aid to the country, remains worried about.

To put it in some perspective, the recent call made by General Raheel Sharif for “complementary governance” in its fight against terrorism (which historically has conveniently ignored any action against groups that Pakistan Army and ISI themselves sponsor) was greeted with contempt from the Nawaz Sharif camp. An aide of Nawaz Sharif, Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party leader Mahmood Jan Achakzai replied in parliament that such a statement by the army was against the spirit of the constitution, and that any attempts to create foreign policy from outside the parliament will not be supported.

“If both Sharifs are on the same page, we will support them unconditionally, but if there are any differences between them then we will support the civilian Sharif,” Achakzai had said.

Achakzai’s statement offered a distant yet interesting view of the fractured lines between the civilian and military power complexes. There is very little doubt that as far as Pakistan’s India policy goes, it is the Pakistan Army that orchestrates majority of it. However, Nawaz Sharif’s moves to try and recover some of that decision making away from the army should get the backing of the Indian government.

Now, days later after the Lahore visit, familiar events that we have seen take place every time India and Pakistan move towards a dialogue process, unfolded at the Indian Air Force’s base in Pathankot in the state of Punjab, about 40 km from the international border. Terrorists widely reported to be from Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed outfit infiltrated parts of the base in an audacious attempt to sabotage IAF assets. Seven Indian soldiers lost their lives as they fought back, and now 40 hours later, no clear picture is yet available as the operations to clear out the area continue, with reports suggesting two more terrorists still remaining at large.

This cyclic occurrence of terror activities emitting from across the border, more than often brandishing the stamp of militant outfits actively supported by the Pakistan Army and its spy agency the ISI, must have been expected by New Delhi at some level. While most such reactions are usually expected to come via infiltrations from across the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu & Kashmir the fact that such a bid seems to have been made via the international border instead, targeting Punjab, has added fresh optics for Indian military preparedness to factor in.

Another pertaining question that rises from the Pathankot siege is the selected target. An IAF base has not been attacked in such a manner since 2001 when terrorists tried to penetrate the Awantipur base in Quil Pulwama, J&K. Even then, the four militants had tried to infiltrate by masquerading as policemen, and reports have been suggesting a similar situation may have taken place in Pathankot as well. However, attacking a fortified military installation in Punjab as a terror target may also have other underlying reasons, such as exploiting ease of access points developed across the international border in order to avoid the heavily militarized LoC districts.

For Modi, the challenge now is how to balance the existence of the Lahore opening with public opinion post-Pathankot at home. With the national security advisor level talks slated to be held on the 15th of this month now looking to be the first casualty of the air base attacks, Modi and his team would ideally want to break this trend and double-down on engagements with the Sharif government and confront Pakistan on terrorism face to face. However, business as usual in such a manner is an unacceptable outcome for domestic political optics as well. The next few days may (or may not) present some intricate insight into Modi’s developing Pakistan policy, and whether it is going to offer any out of left field takes on our troubled neighbour. This may set stage for the India–Pakistan dynamics for rest of the year.