Indian diplomacy did well, now to step it up

Indian diplomacy did well, now to step it up

Result-oriented diplomacy requires the identification of clear political objectives. In the fortnight between the Pulwama terrorist attack, the Balakot aerial strike, the Pakistani counter and the release of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, India’s overall diplomatic aim remained the same—to contribute to the national effort against Pakistani terror. However, as the situation evolved, naturally so did tactical diplomatic moves. How did Indian diplomacy fare in this difficult fortnight beginning February 14?

A large number of countries condemned the Pulwama attack and condoled its victims. From the beginning, the international community realised that it was a grave provocation, for it had led to the largest number of casualties in a single attack on security forces. As India announced that the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) had carried out this heinous act, the United States condemned the organisation and called on Pakistan to “end immediately the support and safe havens provided to all terrorist groups operating on its soil…” Other countries avoided naming the JeM.

 Some countries close to Pakistan, even while condemning the attack, could not refrain from giving India sermons. China said, “We hope relevant regional countries will cooperate to cope with the threat of terrorism and jointly uphold regional peace and stability”. Turkey went further. It noted “We are deeply concerned about the increasing tension and casualties in Jammu and Kashmir and hope that the problem would be settled through dialogue and within the framework of the relevant UN resolution”.

At this stage, the obvious diplomatic objective was to get the international community to not only condemn the attack, but also place the blame on the JeM. The best way of getting this done was to get the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to give an unprecedented statement in which the JeM was named. Indian diplomats at the UN were successful in this endeavour despite the opposition of China, especially regarding the inclusion of JeM in the statement. They were aided in their effort because the major powers realised the intensity of Indian anger at the heinous attack.

Soon after Pulwama, Prime Minister Narendra Modi indicated that the Indian response would be tough. That indicated the possibility of the use of force. India’s diplomatic effort had now to ensure that the international community realised that Indian strategic patience was exhausted after almost three decades of Pakistan-sponsored terror and that armed action would be justified. This was not an easy task, for despite the realisation that India had the right of self-defence, a scenario of armed hostilities between two countries with nuclear weapons fills the international community with dread. The fact that except for a muted Chinese criticism, no country objected to the Balakot action showed that India’s quiet effort was successful.

At this time, Prime Minister Imran Khan undertook a diplomatic offensive. He invited India to give “actionable evidence” and guaranteed action. Threatening immediate retaliation, he asked for dialogue. India correctly publicly dismissed Khan’s grandstanding and pointed to Pakistan’s double-speak on terror. However, one area where Indian diplomacy needs to do far more relates to exposing Pakistan’s selective approaches on terrorism, which has persuaded some sections of the international community that it has lost 70,000 people in the fight against terrorism. The truth is, Pakistan raised a large number of terrorist groups against India and Afghanistan. Some of them turned against the Pakistani State and it has sustained losses in fighting them. Other groups, such as the JeM, continue to do Pakistan’s bidding.

The diplomatic effort after the Balakot action was to give Pakistan an escape route. Hence, the emphasis that India’s careful armed action was only against a JeM facility. Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale’s media statement was extremely well crafted but it came at the cost of a detailed account of the action. It was obviously meant to convey to Pakistan and the international community that India did not want to escalate and its fight was only against terrorists. After keeping options open for a few hours, Pakistan decided not to keep to the advice of the major powers for restraint and, on February 27, launched a counter-attack in which, unlike India, it targeted military installations, thereby provoking India.

India maintained official silence for many hours after the attack, letting confusion prevail. It is necessary not only for the purposes of communications strategy but also for diplomacy to remain on top of a ‘developing story’, especially in this day of social media and instant communications. This was lacking in those crucial hours. As Pakistan had not taken the escape route, a delay was not necessary. All it did was to feed media frenzy. The statement, when it came, was made by the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs and was much too cryptic.

President Donald Trump’s comments on February 28 about the US being in the “middle” and good news being awaited suggests that after the Pakistani action, the US was asking India to hold its hand steady and was leaning on Pakistan to make a significant gesture to assuage Indian anger. That came the next day when Imran Khan announced the swift release of Wg Cdr Abhinandan. True to form, Pakistan acted perfidiously by extracting and publicising a statement under duress from him before sending him over to the Indian side after hours of delay. It seems that the immediate situation has been calmed.

Questions remain. Will and should India respond to the Pakistani offer of dialogue? This is nothing new. Pakistan wants unconditional talks and wishes to really focus on its obsession: Jammu and Kashmir. India must continue with its position that talks cannot be held till Pakistani terror continues. The past bears witness to how terrorism has always derailed normalisation efforts. The international community needs to be sensitised further to this valid Indian stand.

Even more, Indian diplomats will have to fan out to impress their interlocutors that India may get its conventional defence forces into play if an unacceptable terrorist attack occurs. Thus, Balakot may not be a one-off action. Pakistan would be responsible for any escalation that may occur. Thus, Indian diplomacy will have to urge the global powers to effectively pressure Pakistan to end terrorism.

(The writer is former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs)

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