In a bold, decisive move over the extended weekend, Prime Minister Modi’s government unveiled India’s uncompromising stance on issues of sovereignty and territory. After decades of procrastination on the status of Kashmir, Modi’s government early in its second term initiated a new approach which unequivocally asserted that Kashmir is an integral part of India with no outside element having a role. It confirmed that the earlier policy of diffidence and indecision has been replaced.
Prime Minister Modi’s first visit abroad to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit on June 14, 2019, after his resounding electoral victory, provided an opportunity to message the contours of the foreign policy that India will pursue through his second term. The result at the hustings earlier had unequivocally reinforced national support for Modi’s security strategy and foreign policy in his first term. This was particularly relevant for two countries attending the SCO, namely Pakistan and China. The message clearly is that economic interests would top the Modi government’s agenda in its second term, but that equally important will be consolidating and building relations with India’s neighbours and combatting – especially cross-border – terrorism without yielding any ground on matters of sovereignty and territory. These were implicitly conveyed, or specifically stated, during this SCO summit.
Even before Prime Minister Modi left for Bishkek, venue of the second Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit after India became a full member, the relationship with Pakistan threatened to cast a shadow early in the first 100 days of Modi’s new term. For some undetermined reason, and indicating possible ineptitude within the Indian establishment, India sought permission from Pakistan for overflight by the Prime Minister’s aircraft. This predictably triggered widespread popular domestic criticism, including on the social media, prompting the Prime Minister to avoid flying over Pakistan and thereby deny Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan an opportunity to score pyrrhic propaganda brownie points. Pertinent in this context are Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s pleas for normalised ties with India. China’s President Xi Jinping has overtly supported him and been demanding that India “go halfway” towards meeting Pakistan and “resolve” the Kashmir issue. But neither made any mention of Pakistan complying with India’s demand that it dismantles its terrorist infrastructure and cease mounting cross-border terrorist attacks against India. For Beijing, resolution of the Kashmir issue would imply resolution on Pakistan’s terms. China, of course, has its own interest in Kashmir.
India’s new strategic and foreign policy began taking shape many months prior to India’s general elections and the SCO Summit. On the question of terrorism and Pakistan, India made clear that terrorist attacks from across the border will invite robust retaliation. The military ‘surgical’ strikes after the terrorist attacks at Uri and the airstrike on Balakot – despite attempts by some quarters at casting doubt on the efficacy of these military actions – explicitly conveyed that India is willing and able to use force to strike at will and pre-emptively anywhere including inside Pakistan. Balakot, incidentally, is barely 30-odd kilometres distant from the nearest project of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Equally importantly, India conveyed it will not be deterred by the threat of use of nuclear weapons or international pressure. India did, of course, sound major world powers regarding its proposed course of action. India’s actions have already begun to register with major world powers. Important in shaping their responses will be the manner in which India refines this policy to meet future terrorist attacks, which will certainly occur.
The SCO Summit provided the first example of India’s new approach. Prior to the SCO Summit and including on its eve, China was repeatedly urging India to ‘meet Pakistan halfway’ and ease tensions. Chinese President Xi Jinping, as anticipated, raised the subject during his one-on-one meeting with Prime Minister Modi on the side-lines of the SCO Summit and, additionally suggested that China could mediate between the two on the issue of Kashmir. India’s response was categoric and publicised. Modi stated that India had seen no effort by Pakistan to dismantle its terrorist infrastructure or prevent terrorist attacks and, therefore, India’s policies towards it would remain unchanged. Replying to Xi Jinping’s suggestion that China could mediate between the two on Kashmir, he was told that all issues between the two countries would be resolved bilaterally. Simply put, India does not welcome outside interference.
India’s new, and long overdue, policy towards Pakistan has raised the bar for any future Indian response. The Indian people have already endorsed this policy and this will be a determinant in future elections. India’s armed forces will need to prepare to respond quickly and substantively to cross-border terrorist actions. In other words, they will need to become “lean and mean” and rework their current organisational structure and outlook. Politicians will neither be able to downplay terrorist incidents and will need to name the country from which the attacks originate. India’s Intelligence agencies similarly require to get proactive and penetrate terrorist outfits operating from Pakistan and elsewhere in the neighbourhood. They will have to sharpen efforts to identify operational plans of the Pakistan Army and terrorist outfits, camps where they concentrate inside Pakistan, training facilities, sources of funding and material support etc. It is equally important for India to enhance strategic communications and use it to drum up global sentiment against terrorist actions.
The policy has definite implications for Kashmir, an area of strategic importance. Kashmir is one area where Chinese and Pakistani interests converge and India will be subject to growing pressure. The US too has occasionally shown interest in meddling in the area. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will increase pressure on India as it progresses. Already, China’s strategic long-term interests in the northern areas of Pakistan in the Karakorum region and port of Gwadar are evident. Over the decades, China has occasionally claimed the entire state of J&K or substantial parts of it apart from the areas already under its forcible occupation. China’s interest is exemplified by its growing military and security presence. These mesh with, and augment Pakistan’s military infrastructure. The supply of warships and submarines by China to the Pakistan Navy enhance the direct threat to India. A prime example is the manner in which Pakistan is formally integrating PoK, Gilgit and Baltistan in order to safeguard Chinese investments in CPEC projects in these areas.
Before the China-Pakistan nexus begins to more directly threaten Kashmir, India has begun to mainstream Jammu and Kashmir with the rest of the country further consolidating its sovereignty. Stopping Pakistan’s terrorist actions in Kashmir and elsewhere in India and neutralising the terrorist support infrastructure comprising ‘separatist’ elements are co-related steps.
Modi’s foreign and strategic policies are designed to meet national interests.
(The author is a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is presently President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy. Views are personal.)