Why BRICS ignored India-Pakistan tensions

M.K. Bhadrakumar October 22, 2016 4:35 PM (UTC+8)
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International conferences can have winners and losers. That is the mystique of multilateral diplomacy. At the two-day BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in Goa, there was a solitary winner – Russia.

The Russian news agency Sputnik quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov to say Moscow is satisfied because the summit documents “reflect many political topics important for us” – peaceful usage of space, chemical and biological terrorism, unacceptability of unilateral sanctions, Syria and so on.

Brazil and South Africa preferred to stand in the shadows, while China appears satisfied that BRICS followed the footfalls of the G20 in Hangzhou on global economic governance. Beijing positions itself ‘to open a new chapter’ in BRICS at next year’s summit meeting in Xiamen.

However, the shocking thing was that India ‘lost’. Host countries seldom lose. A high-profile, no-holds-barred campaign spearheaded personally by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Goa to insert India-Pakistan tensions into the BRICS agenda was rebuffed. The BRICS just was not interested.

India miscalculated. Modi surprised the G-20 in Hangzhou last month by pointing finger at Pakistan as a state sponsoring terrorism. Delhi probably tested it out as a dress rehearsal in front of the Chinese.

But the expectation proved wrong. China took an unprecedented public stance defending Pakistan from Indian allegations. This is not only a reflection of the transformation of Sino-Pakistani relations as a regional alliance but of the drift in Sino-Indian ties lately.

Equally, the Russian statement at the BRICS plenary never once mentioned ‘terrorism’, while the Chinese statement underscored the need of political solution by addressing ‘root causes’ of terrorism (read Kashmir question.)

Indians went ballistic, especially Modi’s core constituency of Hindu fundamentalists. China and Russia are not looking good in the Indian media currently.

But emotionalism clouds judgment. The fact of the matter is that China and Russia are not exceptions. The Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, an iconic figure who represents world conscience, also told Modi this week that India needs to address ‘root causes’ of terrorism before making allegations against Pakistan.

The British government clarified against the background of Prime Minister Theresa May’s visit to India this week that UK highly commends Pakistan’s ‘significant sacrifices’ in the fight against terrorism and underscoring the ‘shared interests’ of the two countries in this area.

What has gone so terribly wrong with India’s ‘Pakistan-centric’ counter-terrorism strategy? Why does it lack credibility?

The heart of the matter is that the Indian strategy is fundamentally flawed. It is largely a rehash of past policies dating back to early nineties when India was fighting an active insurgency that was micromanaged from Pakistan.

Today, what India faces in Kashmir is not an insurgency but a variant of ‘Intifada’ – rejection of Indian state emblems.

Why things had to come to this tragic pass makes a long story, but what matters today is the futility of making Pakistan the convenient scapegoat instead of looking into the ‘root causes’ of the upheaval, which is one hundred years old and has taken more than 100 human lives.

However, Hindu nationalist forces who mentor Modi government are disinterested in a political solution. They are convinced that the morale of the inchoate resistance in the Valley can be broken through sustained coercive methods and once that is achieved, an agenda of the region’s full integration as Indian state can begin, finally.

Meanwhile, the accompanying strident nationalistic rhetoric silences the opposition parties from voicing dissent lest they are branded ‘anti-national’. Jingoism plays a key part here and the recent ‘surgical strikes’ by the Indian Army against Pakistan feed into it.

The public attention has shifted from the ‘root causes’ of the turmoil in the Valley. The international community, therefore, commiserates with the pain and suffering that terrorism inflicts on India but stands aloof ostentatiously from the Indian allegation that Pakistan is sponsoring the terrorist acts.

The Indian agencies ought to have produced by now some tangible evidence about Pakistan’s complicity that would sway international opinion. But they are either inept or there simply is not any hard evidence available. One full month has passed after the attack on Uri base.

This pathetic cock-up enables Pakistan to submit before the international community that Delhi is falsely making allegations to cover up the ‘repression’ in Kashmir.

Meanwhile, other factors complicate the situation for India. One, regional and international politics works to Pakistan’s advantage insofar as all big powers are keen to engage it constructively in their self-interests, for a variety of compulsions. This includes the US, China, Russia, Britain and the European Union and so on.

Therefore, India’s campaign to ‘isolate’ Pakistan is leading nowhere. Two, Modi government has been exceedingly foolish to wade into the Baluchistan problem and give an impression that it too is in the business of using terrorism as instrument of regional policies.

Combined with India’s stated opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor on geopolitical grounds, international community increasingly tends to equate Pakistan and India both as victims of terrorism.

Thus, their advice is that India and Pakistan must talk with each other and resolve the differences. But then, while Pakistan sounds reasonable by saying it is willing to talk, India rejects negotiations regarding Kashmir.

As things stand today, Modi government has no reason to discard the present hardline strategy. For a start, no country is willing to put pressure on India, which proclaims itself as the ‘fastest-growing’ market in the world today.

Secondly, ‘Pakistan-centric’ counter-terrorist rhetoric finds resonance in Indian politics, which the ruling party hopes to exploit. The rhetoric inexorably promotes Hindu-Muslim polarization and reinforces the Hindu identity of the Indian voter and gets him attracted to the ‘Hindutva’ ideology.

The government cannot afford to lower the rhetoric because a series of important state elections are coming up, too. Any ‘softening’ attitude toward Pakistan will deprive the BJP of a potent platform.

The plain truth is that Modi government has little to show as achievements through the two years in power. The economic indices are showing decline in investment in plant and machinery, indicative of the economy’s shrinking productive capacities.

Bank credit to industry is actually contracting. Clearly, there is deep distress in banking and industrial sectors. A leading economist Rajiv Kumar at the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi wrote,

“Investment weakness and loss in employment will have serious socio-political consequences. Symptoms are already visible… reflecting rising impatience of India’s much vaunted youth. These agitating people need employment… Modi would do well to direct his economic team to focus laser like on attracting more investment and generating more jobs, before it is too late.”

Therefore, it may be expedient to calibrate the tensions with Pakistan. The international community seems to sense this, too.

Washington is focusing on keeping the tensions under check. The BRICS also showed reluctance to being drawn into India-Pakistan tensions. The summit in Goa ought to be a reality-check. But, for that to happen, a political will is necessary.

M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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