Is Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar veering off script or reading from notes that his government has given him?
The question put to Mr Parrikar in parliament by a Shiv Sena member of the upper house, Sanjay Raut, was clearly meant to bait the government into giving a hard-hitting response.
A sensible response by Mr Parrikar would have been to state that investigations were ongoing. A more expansive response to Mr Raut’s question would have had the Indian defence minister acknowledging the role of non-state actors in the attack on the Pathankot air force base, but avoiding speculation about the link to the Pakistani state.
Instead, Mr Parrikar, who has earned a reputation for bellicose remarks off the cuff, went so far as to link all non-state actors, ie militants and terrorists, on Pakistani soil to the Pakistani state. “Any non-state actors there, they cannot function smoothly without full state support,” Mr Parrikar told the Rajya Sabha.
The Indian defence minister’s loose remarks underscore the challenges that bilateral dialogue has to contend with: when dialogue is stalled, hawkish elements in both countries can and do casually undermine the environment for talks and make it that much more difficult to resume them.
Pakistan clearly has a non-state actor problem — militants and terrorists still operate with impunity on Pakistani soil in unacceptably large numbers. The Pathankot attack may well have originated from Pakistani soil.
But from the very moment of the attack, the state here — both the political and military sides of it — has tried to respond to India’s concerns, vowed to investigate the attack, shared information with India and the public in both countries, and appears committed to bringing the architects of the Pathankot attack to justice.
Nothing the Pakistani state has done since Pathankot suggests the group to which the attackers apparently belonged has been allowed to operate smoothly. If anything, there has been an unprecedented crackdown on an anti-India group operating inside Pakistan.
Mr Parrikar and his fellow hawks in government must surely be aware of the steps Pakistan has taken, even if they remain suspicious of Pakistan.
Are the hawks then trying to convince their own government to reverse itself on its decision to resume dialogue with Pakistan? Or is Prime Minister Modi using his cabinet to put pressure on Pakistan without directly implicating himself?
The history of the Pakistan-India relationship is replete with examples of politicians on both sides saying one thing and meaning another.
Perhaps what is important for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government, and the military establishment in Pakistan is to recognise that a drawn-out investigation into Pathankot is not in the interests of bilateral dialogue.
Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz has yet again suggested that a Pakistani investigation team is set to visit India soon. Perhaps the two governments are close to setting a date for the foreign secretaries to meet too.
Published in Dawn, March 3rd, 2016