Why the Talks Were Cancelled
Abandoning foreign secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan in August was as surprising as it was telling about the opacity of the determinants of India’s foreign policy towards Pakistan. The victorious Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had practiced reconciliation and trade with Pakistan the last time it was in power. Yet its election manifesto ...
Abandoning foreign secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan in August was as surprising as it was telling about the opacity of the determinants of India’s foreign policy towards Pakistan. The victorious Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had practiced reconciliation and trade with Pakistan the last time it was in power. Yet its election manifesto promised a more aggressive stand. Why the change?
Amidst the dichotomy between past practice and recent rhetoric, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared to retain foreign policies of the previous government since assuming office in May. His invitation to heads of South Asian nations to attend his swearing-in ceremony was acknowledged even by his detractors. Informed analysts believe that the gesture was driven by Modi’s wish to meet Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and signal that far from using it to consolidate Hindu votes, he will tread the path of party doyen Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In the wake of such gestures, cancellation of high-level talks with Pakistan over its High Commissioner’s meeting with members of Hurriyat Conference, the principal Kashmiri separatist group, is baffling. Why were talks cancelled over a practice with a decade-long precedent? Does it represent a fundamental shift in the new administration’s policy towards Pakistan and Kashmir? The decision can be understood in three ways: state strategy, domestic politics, and inner-party struggles.
From a statist perspective, it suggests restitution to the earlier position of treating Kashmir as a bilateral dispute between India and Pakistan, without representation of Kashmiri political organizations and international mediation, two long-standing demands of Pakistan. But why the change of policy now? After all, previous governments did not veto such consultations despite being disapproving of them. The government could have prevented Hurriyat from meeting the diplomats. House arrests and arbitrary detentions are hardly novel in Kashmir. Rather than lodge customary protests, the cancellation denotes a firm stand that New Delhi will not brook Pakistan’s strategy of propping Hurriyat as a legitimate party to the conflict. The statist perspective is supported by BJP’s election manifesto, which had outlined a more aggressive foreign policy. Modi’s choice of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval also lends credence to the argument. Doval, a decorated former intelligence officer, has articulated a more hard-line policy against Pakistan since retirement.
Modi’s foreign policy team is a close self-selected team of like-minded advisors who favor foreign policy based on relative power. Asymmetry of sate capacity, in turn, encourages such a stand. India’s capacity, in terms of GDP, population, conventional military strength, and its position in the international system, has spiraled ahead of Pakistan in recent years. Enjoying superiority over Pakistan in almost every aspect of conventional state capacity, this view considers it India’s prerogative to dictate the terms of negotiation. Driven by a Thucydidean worldview, India’s increasing self-recognition as an emerging power behooves casting off vestiges of Nehruvian idealism that informed its leadership of the Third World and the Non-Aligned Movement during its formative years. As the status quo actor in Kashmir, India does not lose from stalling negotiations. India’s domestic problems do not require resolution of its dispute with Pakistan. On the other hand, successful negotiations over Kashmir will help Pakistan demobilize rebel groups and wean away those producing violence inside the country. India does not have such a pressing concern. Indeed, India’s superiority at the bargaining table will increase in direct proportion to the duration of the dispute resolution process. In realpolitik terms, the asymmetry of resources and motivation to negotiate encourage gradualism, if not intransigence.
From the vantage point of domestic politics, Modi’s decision to halt talks may be driven by electoral incentives. Jammu and Kashmir will go to polls later this year. BJP has already declared its goal of winning the Muslim majority state’s assembly elections. Once in control of the legislature, the BJP, some claim, will use mechanisms available in India’s constitution to circumscribe Kashmir’s unique autonomy granted during its accession to India. The 87-member assembly is evenly divided between Muslim majority Kashmir and non-Muslim Jammu and Ladakh regions (46 and 41 seats, respectively). In a state where votes are assumed divided along religious lines, the BJP may be following the strategy of rallying Jammu Hindus, Kashmiri Pandits, and Ladakh Buddhists, who are resentful towards the Kashmiri nationalist movement. Sweeping the non-Muslim electorates requires wiping out main rivals such as the Congress and local parties. By adopting a harsh stand against Hurriyat’s collaboration with Pakistan, the BJP hopes to further polarize the multi-ethnic electorate and win the Hindu windfall.
Far from a definitive break from extant foreign policy, this school of thought suggests a more transient change. One cannot discount the resumption of talks despite similar ‘provocations’ from Pakistan after the local election cycle. Will Modi the moderate seek legacy of ‘Modi the peacemaker’ as he nears the end of his term? Such volte-face is possible in this interpretation of recent events.
Inner Party Struggles
Yet another explanation may be rooted in struggles within the BJP. Its election stratagem – appealing to both the moderate median voter by promising transparency and development, and the radical fringe by strengthening Hindu nationalism – gave hope to party leaders of different ideological and policy persuasions that their positions will be implemented. In the ensuing debate, the more Machiavellian elements may have pushed aside moderate leaders. Other domestic factors such as electoral incentives, leader personality, ideology, and class interests are often more important. These, however, were present during the previous government’s tenure as well; the novelty of intra-organization rivalry inside a right-wing party trying to maneuver to the centre indicates its salience. One report suggests that Modi cancelled talks precisely to obviate criticism from party hardliners.
The view that radical factions of the party forced Modi’s hands, however, is least defensible. Emerging accounts portray Modi playing a crucial role in key areas like foreign affairs, defense and finance despite assigning senior party colleagues to these ministries. Such personality-driven, quasi-authoritarian rule usually generates internal dissent over time, and limits the extent to which leaders consolidate power. In Modi’s case, however, his vital contribution to the BJP’s election victory, popular appeal, and support of the RSS – the right-wing Hindu ideological party out of which the BJP emerged – is believed to have obviated internal dissent. Sections of the party might be dissatisfied with emerging policy, but right now, there is no evidence of internal struggle.
It is difficult to measure the relative salience of state strategy and domestic politics as both are supported by reasonable evidence and past precedent. The long-term significance of the cancellation remains uncertain too. This might be the BJP’s ‘line in the sand’ moment. It may just as well be a short-term alteration to win the Jammu and Kashmir elections. Perhaps it is both simultaneously. Robert Putnam explained the ‘logic of two-level games’ in which states seek domestic and foreign policy goals concurrently. The case of Kashmir extends this argument, suggesting even greater inter-linkages between the two; foreign and domestic politics can form a causal cycle of mutual reinforcement. The BJP might have exploited an emerging foreign policy opportunity to influence the outcome of Kashmir elections. In turn, the far-reaching goal of winning Assembly elections might be to gain another ‘constitutional’ instrument against Pakistan. Armed with the people’s mandate, the BJP will be able to amend Kashmir’s relation with New Delhi by diluting the already atrophied autonomy originally guaranteed in the Constitution, and further weaken Pakistan’s legal position in the dispute. How that affects political mobilization, state legitimacy, and the development of institutions that comprise ‘normalcy’ in Kashmir is another story.
Kaustav Chakrabarti (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi based public policy think-tank.
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