Is the subcontinent adrift?
The long-troubled relationship between Pakistan and India has lately not been in the news. Nor have there been any significant scholarly studies recently to examine the present state of play between the two nuclear neighbors. A notable exception is Feroze Hassan Khan’s Subcontinent Adrift: Strategic Futures of South Asia published in August. An earlier book by him titled Eating Grass authoritatively chronicled Pakistan’s nuclear history and was a path breaking work from an ‘insider’ long associated with the country’s strategic program. It made waves both within and outside the country. The book offered a compelling account of how it took Pakistan 25 years of grueling effort and braving embargos, sanctions and technology denial to build a strategic capability. It took even longer to transform that into an operational deterrent with an effective delivery system.
What inspired him to write his thoughtful new book? Khan told me that nearly a quarter of a century after both countries became declared nuclear powers, hardly any recent study assessed “the dialectic of two clashing nuclear armed countries with attendant risks and pathways for good, bad and ugly futures.” “It was,” he says, “the character of political change in India after the rise of Narendra Modi that motivated me to unpack the complex nature of this enduring rivalry that risks the fate of nearly two billion people on the subcontinent.”
The book considers the causes and consequences of continuing tensions between the two countries and an impasse that has been so difficult to overcome. It seeks to dissect their respective interests, motivations and long-term objectives from the current perspective of India’s ambitions as a ‘rising power’, China’s growing global clout and pursuit of the Belt and Road initiative and what the author discerns as Pakistan’s anxieties over closer US-India ties. The impact of regional complexities and global geopolitical rivalries on India-Pakistan dynamics are kept squarely in view throughout the book.
Khan told me that nearly a quarter of a century after both countries became declared nuclear powers, hardly any recent study assessed “the dialectic of two clashing nuclear armed countries with attendant risks and pathways for good, bad and ugly futures.”
Opening chapters track the genesis, history and roots of conflict between the two countries, ascribing enduring tensions to an interplay between ‘cognitive bias’ and unresolved disputes. The author argues that cognitive bias has fueled mistrust and reinforced prejudices as well as created a propensity to attribute malign intent to each other over disagreements. Questioning by Indian leaders about the rationale for Pakistan’s existence and viability caused early acrimony and heightened Pakistan’s security dilemmas. The legacy of unresolved issues intensified hostility and yielded an early war over Kashmir. Given its security predicament, Pakistan’s history became one of survival.
After the nuclear tests by both countries a “forlorn hope” was spawned, writes the author, that conflict would be abjured and the two nations would become more circumspect in dealing with each other. The Kargil conflict ended such expectations. But both countries learnt a “distressing” lesson from it. India thought it could win a conventional war against a nuclear state while Pakistan believed its nuclear capability deterred India from escalating the conflict. Subsequent crises with the last one in 2019 exposed the dangers to strategic stability in the region. Khan then analyzes prospects for stability in the context of the strategic thinking of the two countries and their doctrines in several insightful chapters.
I asked Khan whether he was optimistic or pessimistic about the subcontinent’s strategic future, which his book deals with in the final chapter. He said he is hopeful and cautiously optimistic of the future. He identifies three pathways to the future, good, bad and ugly.
“What has the ingredients for a good future is the Lahore Agreement (1999) and the Pervaiz Musharraf -Atal Bihari Vajpayee/Manmohan Singh era,” he says, which is described in the last chapter. “Kargil (1999) and myriad crisis (2001, 2019 Balakot) show how a bad future could turn ugly if this hyper Hindutva mindset continues in India.” He identifies the “lack of any strong visionary leadership” on both sides as a key factor for the present gridlock. But more likely, he concludes, “South Asia will muddle through – unless some external or internal forces change dynamics.” Khan’s excellent book is a must read to understand the many dimensions of a complex and turbulent relationship.
My view is that given the volatility in Pakistan-India relations and the US-China confrontation now shaping geopolitical alignments in the region, it is difficult to be sanguine about the future. Formal dialogue has remained suspended for several years now. Chances of resumption are slim in view of Delhi’s obdurate refusal to discuss the Kashmir dispute. With normalization of ties a remote possibility, quiet diplomacy by the two countries is still possible and will likely focus on managing tensions to prevent them spinning out of control in a nuclearized environment. An uneasy and fragile state of no war, no peace is likely to persist which will certainly leave the subcontinent adrift.
- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha