Our foreign office seems to have adopted it to hide the complete absence of strategic clarity.
The official spokesman of the ministry of external affairs does not have an easy job, and I should know because I have done that job myself when I was in the Indian Foreign Service. He or she has to often try and convincingly explain foreign policy decisions that are ab initio inexplicable. On December 26, 2017, national security adviser Ajit Doval and his Pakistani counterpart Lt. Gen. Nasser Khan Janjua (retd) met at an undisclosed destination in Bangkok, as part of, what was described as “operational level talks”.
Not surprisingly, Raveesh Kumar, the spokesman, was asked about this meeting, and how it had taken place when we have publicly said that “terror and talks cannot go together”. It was not an easy question to answer, and certainly, Mr Kumar was not the maker of the policy that had put him in this predicament. His response, however, took the diplomatic cake as far as words without meanings go: “We have said terror and talks cannot go together,” he pronounced, “but talks on terror can definitely go ahead.”
This statement must rank as a classic of self-contradictory assertion. It accepted that talks will not be resumed so long as terrorism from across the border ceases. But simultaneously, it asserted that talks can happen on the issue of terrorism. Since terrorism is the reason why we put talks with Pakistan on hold, what does a statement mean when it says that terrorism will be the reason why talks “can definitely go ahead”?
Since I am reluctant to attribute a complete lack of strategic clarity to the MEA, I am inclined to believe that the statement it put out represents one of the best examples of the philosophical ambivalence of Hindu metaphysics, wherein empirical reality exists as maya at one level, and does not at another level wherein all is subsumed in the attribute-less omnipresence of Brahman. What appears as real is unreal; what appears to be unreal is actually the real. The universe is a conjurer’s play, where contradictions that seem to exist are an invention of the mind. All binaries are false and all binaries are true. Everything depends on the vision of the observer; negation is assertion, and assertion is negation. Opposites are subsumed in a larger unity, known only to the one who knows, but opaque to the mundane world. In such a philosophical vision, talks with Pakistan do not happen even when they happen, and happen even when the official policy remains that they cannot happen!
Or, perhaps, our foreign office has borrowed the sublime notion of syadavada of Jain philosophy. In support of such a carefully thought-out doctrine of relativity, Jainism cites the parable of seven blind men examining an elephant, and depending on what part they are in touch with, arriving at a different conclusion of what it is. At a philosophical level this revolt against absolutism is enshrined in the saptabhangi or seven step theory whose purpose is to establish that only a singular assertion of reality can be deceptive. The seven possibilities are: maybe it is; maybe it is not; maybe, it is, and it is not; maybe it is inexpressible; maybe, it is and is inexpressible; maybe, it is not and is inexpressible; maybe, it is and is not and is inexpressible.
Jainism formulated this remarkable doctrine to counter dogmatism. Our foreign office seems to have adopted it to hide the complete absence of strategic clarity. The saptabhangi for our foreign policy with Pakistan is: talks with Pakistan cannot happen; talks with Pakistan can happen; talks with Pakistan cannot happen unless Pakistan agrees to stop its sponsorship of terrorism; talks with Pakistan can happen because Pakistan will not stop its sponsorship of terrorism; if NSAs of the two countries — arguably the most influential interlocutors from either side — meet, they met, but talks did not happen; if talks did not happen, then presumably they visited Bangkok coincidentally at the same time to take a respite from the cold of Delhi and Islamabad; talks, until terrorism stops have no meaning, but NSAs can meet to see if talks can have meaning.
The fact of the matter is that our foreign policy with Pakistan is replete with unpardonable contradictions, and zig-zags in policy formulations that would leave even our most insightful metaphysicians stumped. The reason for this is the absence of strategic policy, and a resort to a never-ending series of ad hoc steps. If we need to review our earlier policy of suspending the formal dialogue process with Pakistan, we should do so in a carefully calibrated manner. Engagement has its own dividends, provided it is carried out in a way that is anticipated and planned for. On the other hand, if our policy remains one of no talks unless Pakistan sponsored terrorism ceases — or at least reduces — then talks without talks in the manner in which our NSAs met in Bangkok makes a mockery of that decision. While the US can play a key role in putting pressure on Pakistan on its nexus with terrorism, a country of the prowess and size of India cannot expect others to do for it what it refuses to do itself.
It appears that the only policy we have to our western neighbour is the absence of policy, both in the short and mid-term, and to lurch along from one event to another, alternating mindless bravado at one level and surreptitious talks at another. Can we expect our foreign office to devise a strategic framework to deal with Pakistan, taking into account its internal situation, the level of ceasefire violations, the need for engagement, the importance of people-to-people contacts, the value of humanitarian gestures, the geo-political imperatives, including the role of China, and developments in Afghanistan, while retaining a firm riposte to Pakistan sponsored terrorism?
Given our track record thus far, it seems a tall order. Until then, our hapless foreign office spokesman will have no option but to forget foreign policy and adopt the wondrous ambivalences of philosophy.