Thursday, November 5, 2009

The limits of coercive diplomacy

Happymon Jacob

The so-called ‘peace overture’ that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made to Pakistan from the Kashmir Valley last week, came almost a year after the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks and New Delhi’s subsequent indefinite halt of the peace process with Islamabad. The major dialogue channels between the two countries — the composite dialogue and the back-channel negotiations — continue to remain closed. Since November 2008, there have only been some underdeveloped and half-hearted attempts towards a thaw in the prevailing icy state of relations between the two countries. There seems to be no way forward.

However, following mounting international pressure and an increasing number of jihadist attacks on its soil, including an audacious assault on the Army’s General Headquarters in Rawalpindi and a series of attacks on police installations in Lahore, Pakistan has urged a resumption of dialogue with India. Dr. Singh’s peace overture has come at a time when there is an urgent need to re-examine India’s policy of ‘no-dialogue’ with Pakistan.

Has it worked?

It is perhaps an opportune time to ask whether the Indian strategy of coercive diplomacy has worked against Pakistan. What has India gained by not talking to Pakistan for 11 months, and what more is India likely to gain if it continues along this path? Do New Delhi’s foreign policy mandarins think India profits strategically by refusing to engage Pakistan in discussion?

Do they assume that India can indefinitely retain the moral high ground it thought it had when it broke off relations with Pakistan last year? They seem to hold this assumption, erroneous though this might be. As a result, New Delhi is not only losing precious time by isolating itself from Pakistan, but is harming its own strategic interests.

India has achieved all it can hope to with its silence; there is nothing more it can reasonably hope to gain by refusing to restart the dialogue process. Pakistan has accepted that the perpetrators of 26/11 came from its territory and has, in principle at least, agreed to prosecute them. India also helped focus the attention of the international community on Pakistan post-26/11. However, New Delhi’s insistence that it will talk to Islamabad only after Jama’at-ud-Da’wah (JuD) chief Hafiz Mohammad Saeed is prosecuted may indeed be demanding too much. India should work with Pakistan to initiate Saeed’s prosecution rather than hounding Islamabad to go it alone: a strategy of pure coercion and compellence with no reasonable payoff is clearly counterproductive.

If New Delhi continues along this route, Pakistan may well up the ante against India (through border incursions, for example) in an attempt to bring India to the negotiating table: states have a tendency to behave irrationally when pushed to the corner. India’s strategy of compellence has never really worked against Pakistan. And it is unlikely to work in the future.


Not only is a ‘no-dialogue’ policy towards Pakistan not useful, it is indeed counterproductive. Consider the following. First of all, the former Pakistan President, Pervez Musharraf, is increasingly becoming a ‘persona non-grata’ among the ruling elites of Pakistan — both civilian and military. There is an emerging tendency among many Pakistani politicians and retired generals who once worked under Gen. Musharraf, to feign ignorance of his statements and actions (especially vis-À-vis India) and to distance themselves from him.

In other words, there is today a clear unwillingness in Pakistan to own the political legacy of its former military dictator. It is now widely recognised that the 2004-2008 peace process — which was seriously considering out-of-the-box solutions to resolve outstanding rifts — not only had the full support of Dr. Singh and Gen. Musharraf but, through its back-channel route, had even prepared a tentative blueprint for peace. More precisely, it is believed that the bilateral back-channel negotiations had taken the peace process on Jammu and Kashmir to a new level. If the new government and the strategic community in Pakistan renege on Gen. Musharraf’s past promises, there will be serious implications for Indo-Pakistan relations, especially with respect to Kashmir.

Therefore, undoing Gen. Musharraf’s legacy will also mean undoing the Indo-Pakistan peace process and all that it may have achieved over time. If this process of demonising and demolishing Gen. Musharraf’s legacy is already under way in Pakistan, then India’s consistent refusal to engage Islamabad will only further contribute to the undoing of the gains of the Indo-Pakistan peace process. In other words, the Indian unwillingness to engage Pakistan will reverse the gains that India had made in recent years in resolving its conflicts with Pakistan.

Another emerging trend in Pakistan is to accuse India of sponsoring terrorism against Pakistan. Today many in the Pakistan establishment are making serious allegations that India supports the Baloch insurgents as well as some Pakistan Taliban groups. While such allegations may not be wholly new, what is perhaps new is the focussed and predetermined manner in which these accusations are being made today and the manner in which this argument is gaining currency within Pakistan’s strategic elite. Although this may be purely for domestic consumption — as the international audience is unlikely to buy this line of argument — a Pakistani population and civil society unfavourably disposed towards India is not something New Delhi should ignore. It will be genuinely counterproductive for Indian interests in the long term.

More so, this shows that there is a perceptible change in Pakistan’s attitude: from being defensive and cornered in the months immediately after 26/11, it is now on the offensive. To some extent this has been a result of India’s overuse of coercive diplomacy, which it continues to indulge in without properly weighing its options in a cost-effective manner. Quite apart from the fact that this approach has degraded relations between the two countries and made Pakistan feel more insecure (which in turn may prompt it to be more belligerent), it has led the international community to regard the two countries as part of the problem rather than as part of the solution. More so, the more time India spends refusing to have a dialogue with Pakistan, the more difficult it will be for the country to start talking if and when it decides to talk.

Status quo bias

New Delhi’s unwise handling of Pakistan is a result of a deep-seated status quo bias that permeates New Delhi’s policy towards Pakistan, terrorism, and even Kashmir which in many ways is the ‘ground zero’ of Indo-Pakistan relations and India’s struggle against terrorism. This status quo bias has manifestly narrowed the Indian government’s understanding and approach to terrorism in the region.

New Delhi sometimes appears to consider terrorism a problem that is unique to India, as though no other country has ever suffered its consequences. It therefore persists with its demand that others (that is, Pakistan) ‘fix’ the problem first before it (the perpetual victim) will discuss other political and security issues.

This head-in-the-sand approach ignores the reality that terrorism is a global/regional problem requiring a global/regional solution. This solution can only be achieved in a cooperative mode and by creating cooperative mechanisms to contain the menace of terror in the region. And India needs to take the lead in this process, however challenging and long-drawn-out it may turn out to be. It is imprudent to attempt to enact unilateral measures to ‘control’ terrorism, precisely because terrorists respect no borders and are by their very nature extremely difficult to control.

A status quo bias may ‘benefit’ the painfully slow-moving Indian political and bureaucratic apparatus, but it is not beneficial for a country that desires to become a great power in an age of fast-changing international politics. To start with, therefore, New Delhi needs to shed its status quo bias and restart the dialogue with Pakistan in its own long-term strategic interests.

(Source: The Hindu, November 4, 2009. URL:


After all the dialogues we indulged with Pakistan since 1947 there has been no significant shift in policies or view points of both the countries.The best solution for India is to stop giving undue importance to Pakistan and focusing more on problems at home. Terrorism that has emerged in names of naxalites, Maoists and many other groups as a result of neglect and weak character of Indian governments has to be controlled first if India desires to achieve a Super Power status ever in future.I agree with the author in the matter that Indian government should stop whining about how Indians have been a victim of Pakistan sponsored Terrorism.We should rather focus on creating a feeling of security by improving the intelligence services and infrastructure for defense and paramilitary forces so that they can effectively counter the militias all over the country.Instead of a dialogue with Pakistan, India can gain more by initiating a dialogue with its own people who have taken up arms.

from: Vinayak
Posted on: Nov 4, 2009 at 02:21 IST

India needs to maintain current status of any talks with Pakistan. Why do we forget that the main culprit named by the arrested Terrorist, providing cogent evidence agaisnt him, is still at large enjoying official support. Evidence provided by India is being either denied or is being rated insufficient. The more we adopted soft diplomakcy to Pakistan the more terrorists landed in India, including Jammu and Kashmir. Government of India, for the first time, as taken right decision to ask Pakistan to first prosecute the main culprit roaming at large before sitting on the dialogue table. We should appreciate the Government's approach which is in overall National interest.

from: Arjoo
Posted on: Nov 4, 2009 at 08:19 IST

Wonderfully written!

from: Mahmood
Posted on: Nov 4, 2009 at 08:23 IST

The author makes some valid points, but looses sight of the larger goal. Talks will help when actions or agreements result. In the case of Pakistan, the main problem is that once the leadership changes (and this seems to happen a lot), the "Talks" have to start again from square one, with all the agreements already concluded deemed worthless. In the current scenario, it does not appear anyone is in control in Pakistan (so no actions possible either).

from: Pradeep
Posted on: Nov 4, 2009 at 10:28 IST

I have to disagree that India needs to pay its unruly neighbour so much attention. India must crush Pakistan's overtures by ignoring it as much as possible, not giving it the level playground it covertly seeks through terrorism.

from: B S Kumar
Posted on: Nov 4, 2009 at 10:32 IST

I don't agree. India should continue to be firm in its position that there will be no talks until the 26/11 terrorists are prosecuted. If Pakistan is really sincere in improving its relations with India, it must do at least the one thing that India is asking for. If it cannot fulfill this one request, how can we be sure it will fulfill other requests made during any future talks? It is Pakistan's credibility at stake here, and there is no need for India to rush to restart talks. Restarting talks for talks sake is futile and everybody knows it. Let's be patient but firm and consistent in our position.

from: Kiran A
Posted on: Nov 4, 2009 at 10:58 IST

While there is no doubt that dialogue can sort out issues across the world, there is a worry India should have to start the same. As one should have noticed in the past, whenever there was an atmosphere created for dialogue, the terrorists had always made hurdles. So if India really want to start the dialogue, let it happen and if there is no agenda, then let it now happen. If one really wants to go and get the issues solved, both these countries should have an open and negotiation mind to start with. Because Paistan can't ask India to hand over entire Kashmir to them, India won't agree to it. Likewise, India should also not insist that we are going to resume the dialogue like our predecessors... If there is no solutions foreseen, then it is better not to have dialogue rather than a failed dialogue.

from: Umesh
Posted on: Nov 4, 2009 at 12:27 IST

India Pakistan relations have always been governed by emotions and events, whether it is Plebscite offering by nehru, shimla agreement , nuclear bomb etc. Every single event or word spoken or action taken has become a cornerstone in deciding future course of action. To make coercive diplomacy successful again, India should talk really tough and not give in as it did at Sharm-el-Sheikh by admitting to look at Balooch accusations. Historical mistakes need not be repeated, else it will harm us in long term.

from: Amit Kumar
Posted on: Nov 4, 2009 at 12:32 IST

I agree with the assessment that coercive diplomacy has all but failed. The US only plays to its self-interest in any region. India has never really stood up to itself in its actions against Pakistan and is seen more as a whiner. The time when we make strong words supported by meaningful action, our aspiration for a super power will be realised. As to the specific re-engagement with Pakistan, it does India no harm in opening channels of back-door diplomacy. But it can be futile with an instable Pak Govt and insecure country.

from: Nandith Nedungadi
Posted on: Nov 4, 2009 at 13:59 IST

I think that the author has been very right in his optimistic attitude for better India-Pak relations. But, i guess the author misses the point that if what is happening in Pakistan now-a-days persists sometime longer, there would be no Pakistan to talk about. The International community has changed their views towards Muslims, which is really a sad thing, people see them as terrorists, everyone and this is because some of them are doing it. I think India can't achieve the Super Power status until and unless it has its issues resolved with Pakistan. But again starting the peace process is not a solution.

from: Ravi
Posted on: Nov 4, 2009 at 14:06 IST

Considering the status quo in Pakistan, Pakistan government and security agencies would be more concerned about their internal security. Mounting pressures to dismantle an entire terror infrastructure may not be a realistic approach from a neighbour like India at this juncture of affairs. It is also true that talks in the current situation may be futile, but being responsible power India needs to resume talks with Pakistan to ensure the state support. An instable Pakistan is a greater threat to India than to themselves.

from: Manu R S
Posted on: Nov 4, 2009 at 14:10 IST

The article could only be construed as a justifier and ground-maker for the to-be announced decision of the Government to carry on the composite dialogues with Pakistan. In the last 62 years, the CBMs ventured by India have only ended in leaving many Indians dead at the hands of terrorists and our intelligence and security forces weakend. India can start, and should, start dialogues only after either the Kashmir problem is solved or when there is a solid proof on the cessation of all terrorism activities that target India in Pakistan.

from: Sakthi
Posted on: Nov 4, 2009 at 14:26 IST

We cannot change our neighbours (neighbouring countries), we have to live with them. Brothers can quarrel sometimes and live apart, but somebody in the family stream should continue to work towards appeasement between the families for a breakthrough in rebuilding the relationship. The misunderstandings of 1947 between the families during our forefathers' period need not have to continue all the way through their grand children and great grand children. We need dialogies between these two great families (India and Pakistan) to come to some good understanding and rejoining. This is the wish of the great great grand children of these two families.

from: Suma
Posted on: Nov 4, 2009 at 14:43 IST

I disagree with the author. You cannot have friendly relations with a country which has throughout history proved to be a backstabber and says that the evidence to frame the terrorists provided by the GoI is not enough!! In the past 10 years itself we faced 3 major attacks by Pakistani terrorists- Kargil War, attack on the parliament and 26/11. I was specially appalled by the following line from the article- ''New Delhi sometimes appears to consider terrorism a problem that is unique to India, as though no other country has ever suffered its consequences.'' Let me point out here that India might not be the only country who had to face the consequences of terrorism but India is the only country who despite of n number of terrorists, anti-Indian elements surrounding the entire border, insurgents, has without a war, diplomatically handled the situation. USA also faced terrorism on it's soil and what did it do? Attack Afghanistan and crumble it to pieces. Instead of applauding the peaceful efforts of the government without waging a war, the author says that India has little to gain by stalling the dialogue process?! My question, what did we gain by resuming it in the first place in 2000? attack on parliament and 26/11..?

from: Jaya Srivastava
Posted on: Nov 4, 2009 at 15:03 IST

I agree with the author that a sensible dialogue is needed from/with Pakistan but NOW is not the time for that.India should wait till the dust settles down there and the signs for peace-making are clearly visible.

from: Senthil Rajan
Posted on: Nov 4, 2009 at 17:23 IST

The broad goals of India's diplomacy should be clear enough: 1. Weaken elements in Pakistan that are violently anti-Indian. 2. Strengthen pro-India elements. The fact that not talking has not achieved this goal does not automatically imply that talking will achieve them. In fact, we could put ourselves in a worse situation by talking. I think both objectives can be achieved if India is able to identify a pro-India element in the Pakistani polity and supporting it consistently. Such element should not be identified with individual persons. India should instead promote concepts like "democracy", "rule of law" and "religious moderation" and be willing to backup any group in Pakistan that embraces these principles. There is no point talking to any government in Pakistan at this time because all of them are controlled by a power structure whose sole aim is to destabilize India. India should create and promote a more friendly atmosphere.

from: Vijay
Posted on: Nov 4, 2009 at 19:03 IST

Coercive diplomacy is just one of the tools of diplomacy. India has used it with limited effect, getting Pakistan to arrest at least the lower level minions of the terrorist infrastructure that has been nurtured there over the past 60 years. It is too early to be called off. In fact, it is not clear that it should ever be called off though it can be re-calibrated. This is not to be confused with the notion that India isn't engaged in interacting with Pakistan. It simply means that sitting down with the Pakistani political leadership at this time would be a wasted effort. Events have proven beyond any doubt that the Pakistani leadership is far too weak to take on the military-bureaucratic establishment that dominates Pakistan. So it suites India to conduct diplomacy that cajoles and prods rather than sits and talks. If there is one important lesson to be learned from engagement with Pakistan, it is that the gains are only possible in conjunction with coercion and force, both diplomatic or military. The 1971 war, the Kargil war and Mumbai terror episode all bear testimony to that simple fact.

from: Gopal
Posted on: Nov 4, 2009 at 19:21 IST

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