India's foreign policy for the next 5 years: Pakistan's economy may be in bad shape, but real danger is jihadist nationalism

Tara Kartha
The Ministry of External Affairs has confirmed that Narendra Modi will not meet his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan on the sidelines of SCO summit.

Editor's note: Prime Minister Narendra Modi's tour of the Maldives is his first international visit after having taken oath for the second time. His 2014 swearing-in ceremony featured leaders from SAARC nations as special invitees, while in 2019, it was the BIMSTEC leaders and those from Kyrgyzstan and Mauritius who were in attendance, underlining the importance the prime minister places on international relations. This is the first in a series of articles that looks at key foreign policy targets for the Modi government as it looks to the next five years.

The Ministry of External Affairs has confirmed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will not meet his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit after all. That was unsurprising. It's much too soon to decide on a troublesome neighbour.

For one, Pakistani leaders €" including those in khaki as well €" are ever ready to believe that Indians have again caved in to pressure/fear/retribution to talk to Pakistan. Ergo, it's time to talk Kashmir. They've thought this for decades, even seeing weak knees in the generosity of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, when he invited a general to Agra. Secondly, a newly-minted prime minister €" even if he's in his second tenure €" would hardly want to make Pakistan a priority even before his first 100 days are over.

Which brings us to the question of what should be done in terms of the Pakistan policy. The obvious answer is: ignore it, and carry on the good work with the US, China, and others in the neighbourhood. With an economy that is in tatters, and the Pakistani rupee standing at PKR 150 to the dollar, it is going down the drain anyway. The truth, however, is that the Pakistan economy still has a degree of resilience, with capable institutions like the State Bank carefully crafting a politically unpopular policy to bring the country back to stability.

True, it has the International Monetary Fund breathing down its neck to institute reforms. But whatever other motives may be ascribed to the IMF, it is certainly in the business of economic stabilisation and those reforms will begin to show results. It's going to take time, and a painful tightening of the belt. No, don't write off Pakistan on the economic score just yet.

The economic crisis was nowhere more apparent than in the announcement of projected budget cuts by the Pakistani army chief for the coming financial year. That should have happened regardless of austerity measures. The Pakistan Army is the fifth largest in the world, and no, it's not anywhere near the top in terms of the listing of the largest countries. It is, however, in the top ten in another listing.

A SIPRI fact sheet puts Pakistan among those with the highest 'military burden' €" that is, those who are spending far too much of their national wealth. Since 2009-2018, it has increased every year to reach an overall increase of  73 percent, which is about 4 percent of GDP. Compare that to India's spending of a reported 2.4 percent. That means a Pakistani economy in dire straits is spending more than twice of what we do.

While the DG ISPR hastened to explain that the Pakistani army would still be capable of cutting the Indian forces down to size, he €" together with some jubilant Indian commentators €" miss the point. If the Pakistan forces are smart, they'll use enforced budget cuts to trim the fat that is most apparent in the army. A reduction in size will not reduce its political clout, but on the contrary, could make the whole force increase operational soundness. It might even make it trim its rocketing ambitions, but that's probably asking for the moon. So no, while the Pakistani Armed Forces can't have any new toys, it can polish up what it still has. So don't write off the khakis just yet.

Therefore, the actual danger for Pakistan is from none of the above. It is the rise and rise of a kind of nationalism that is closing in on itself, with more than a tinge of jihadist fervour. Observe that despite massive US pressure, the Pakistan Army and its backers €" including sections of the political class and the bureaucracy €" have refused to cry halt to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Here, there is a sense of victory being almost within its grasp, that can't be ceded.

It's not, because the Afghan problem is far more complicated than that. But the Pakistani establishment can't bring itself to believe it, so the tragedy continues. In Kashmir, the tap has been turned down marginally. But will it stop? Not on your life. There is also a belief that it can win through, with Kashmir proving to be India's 1971. It's never going to happen, but that doesn't prevent Rawalpindi from believing it. The inability to see reality as it is has always been at the core of the Pakistani problem. That's why 'talking' to Pakistan is a fraught enterprise. It feeds the beast of self-delusion.

So what's the answer? India could continue to ignore Pakistan, but you're stuck with it as a neighbour pretty much forever. The 'Composite Dialogue' of the 1980s is probably also dead in the water. If not, it deserves to be. So, the next best thing is to provide Islamabad a way out at a time of severe and unremitting pressure. An offer could be routed through a third country, to make Pakistan a locus of sub-continental and Asian trade, with not just pipelines, but connectivity projects that are designed to crisscross Asia.

Of these, the International North South Corridor is just one possible enterprise. There are others. That offer is of course tied to a complete and verifiable cessation of terrorism. International traffic is hardly likely to even want to come to Pakistan, unless it ensures a degree of safety and viability. And arising from that, the offer is also naturally linked to ensuring stability in the most volatile parts of Afghanistan. Something like a good old-fashioned sundae €" a vanilla, chocolate and strawberry all in one €" could provide the beginnings of a solution for all three of those most concerned €" India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, with the United States being the waffle cone that holds the whole in place.

Also See: No India-Pakistan bilateral meet planned between Narendra Modi and Imran Khan at SCO: MEA

Narendra Modi, Xi Jinping to meet next week on sidelines of SCO summit, says Indian ambassador

Imran Khan writes to Narendra Modi, says Pakistan wants talks with India to resolve Kashmir issue and other disputes

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