One of the big features of Narendra Modi’s prime ministership has been his proactive global diplomacy. Never before, not since Nehru, has an Indian Prime Minister managed to raise the country’s global clout and profile as Modi has. But here’s the counter-point: none of this has helped India in its biggest external challenge: Pakistan-based jihadi terrorism.
Not that the diplomacy has been a waste. We have got words of comfort and understanding, even some minor action, but what we have not got is active support to bring Pakistan to heel. After Uri, Modi got verbal support from the US, the European Union, Russia and even some helpful noises from China, but not one of them is willing to go further to rein in Pakistan. They will all condemn terrorism in generic terms, but will not act against Pakistan.
One cannot fault the Modi government for this failure, for the reason is the changed global power scenario and threat perceptions over the last 15 years, especially after 9/11. We thus need to recalibrate our Pakistan policy and global diplomacy in the context of the new realities.
Before 9/11 and the US’s ill-fated war in Iraq, the US was the only global superpower. In the decade-and-a-half after that, and especially after the Lehman crisis of 2008, the US is a diminished economic power, and China is the second superpower, having reached half of US GDP, with more than commensurate military power. The third collective superpower, the European Union, has shot itself in the foot economically by pursuing faulty monetary union and a common currency – an idea that has divided the EU more than anything else.
This much is, of course, well established and needs no reiteration, but the larger reality is the rise of a covert fourth potential superpower – global Islamism. The Islamic world is in ferment, and many groups and countries use Islam to acquire power. While jihadi Islamism is a very small component of global Islam, its capacity for extreme violence and ability to silence dissenters makes it more potent than ever before. The strength of violent Islamism lies in its distributed nature – it is not a single and identifiable threat like Nazism in the 1930s – and it influences many pockets in many Muslim countries, none of them well governed.
Islamic terrorism is powerful not because of its numbers (probably running into a few thousand core jihadis), but because of the support it gets from at least three regular and formally recognised Islamic states – Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan, the last one being nuclear-armed. Each one of these Islamic states supports some terror group or the other, some driven by pure Islamist ideologies, and others by local antagonisms and enmities – like Pakistan’s against India, or Saudi Arabia’s against Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. Barring Iran, which with its Persian roots and unique culture, is stable, neither Saudi Arabia nor Pakistan can be assured of a long-term future. Which is what makes them dangerous. They can implode any time, and they will use jihad to keep themselves in one piece.
Since Islam is the currency of power in the Muslim world, the misguided western targeting of “secular” despots like Saddam Hussain in Iraq and Muammar Gaddhafi in Libya has eliminated the only strong men capable of holding jihadis in check. The west is making the same mistake with Bashar Assad in Syria, and it is only Russia’s intervention that has prevented another “secular” despot from falling, creating another launchpad for jihadism.
Assad’s diminution has already unleashed forces that are not easy to contain purely through aerial bombing and assassinations – as the US has been trying to do with Islamic State and other rogue Islamists. While the caliphate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may well end in ignominy, violent Islamism can continue to rise from the ashes. The defanging of al-Qaeda after 9/11 has not, for example, reduced violent Islamism as a potent force. Islamism is a hydra-headed monster.
The above background is needed to understand why we have been failing with our Pakistan policy, especially our efforts to isolate and corner it. Because of the rise of violent Islamism, three Security Council veto-wielding powers – the US, China and Russia – want to engage Pakistan rather than push it into a corner.
If we consider Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan as all essentially Islamist states, it should be easy to comprehend why. No superpower wants to isolate Saudi Arabia or Iran fully, so why would they want to do so with a nuclear-armed power like Pakistan? The US, in fact, went the other way and ended sanctions on Iran the minute it got a fig-leaf of promises on its nuclear programme. On Pakistan, the Big Three are even more circumspect, as they know Terroristan’s ability to stoke more violent jihadism.
In the case of China, propping up Pakistan economically, militarily and diplomatically is useful to keep India off-balance. In China’s view, India poses not only a future economic threat, but also a civilisational one. China views itself as the natural hegemon of Asia, but culturally India has had as much influence as China in south-east Asia. Geopolitically, Modi’s outreach to south-east Asia and Japan can potentially thwart China’s hegemonism, and for this reason alone it is necessary to prop up Pakistan against us.
Another reason which brings all three (US, China and Russia) together on the question of Pakistan is the Islamist threat. The latter two see Pakistan as vital to the control of jihadi elements that could threaten their own unquiet frontiers, where Muslims live in large concentration. Helping Pakistan is a way of ensuring that the jihadi elements do not turn their guns against them.
Put simply, this is the scenario: the US would like India to rise in stature against China, but will not sacrifice Pakistan fully in order to retain some leverage against jihadis threatening Afghanistan and America.
Russia, facing tough American economic sanctions due to its foray into Ukraine, has fallen neatly into Chinese arms. It is not quite a vassal state like Pakistan, but in the foreseeable future, it will be vulnerable to Chinese pressure. The fact that India has shifted focus to the US for arms supplies and technology has rankled. This can be balanced with more purchases from Russia (we recently signed a deal for Triumf missiles), but even Russia wants to keep Pakistan in good humour in order to maintain leverage over jihadi elements.
Put simply, India will get soothing words, but no help from the world on Pakistan. This means we have to do the following things:
One, light fires under Pakistan, whether in Balochistan or Sind or Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. We have to steadily keep pushing up the costs of Pakistan’s jihadi agenda, but covertly and with deniability.
Two, we have to keep building our economic and military capabilities for the next 10 years. After that, we will be a $5-6 trillion economy, and probably No 3 in the world in terms of GDP measured by purchasing power parity.
Three, our military partnerships have to be with the US, Russia and Israel. But we have to build our economic capabilities with Japanese and Chinese help. China’s weak growth trajectory and high trade surpluses with India will make it eager to invest this money for rescuing its own state infrastructure firms. Giving the Chinese more contracts in the infrastructure sector will help us build our economic strength, while preventing them from more belligerent actions against us. We have to behave with China the way China behaved with the US when it was building its own economic muscle: that is, talk softly and maintain a non-belligerent attitude. As a nation we are good at hypocrisy, so why not use this skill with China? Of course, we can’t let down our military preparedness with either China or Pakistan, but a double-faced attitude to China is vital in the next decade. We should praise them to the skies and talk peace and good neighbourliness.
Whether it is a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, getting action against Pakistan’s terrorism, or forcing China to stop bullying the world, India has to become a $5-6 trillion dollar economy before it can fully start asserting itself.
We need 10 years of deft diplomacy and economic and military growth before we become the world’s fourth superpower – after the US, China. The third superpower could be a toss-up between the EU and global Islamism.