INDIAN army chief Gen Bipin Rawat has once again stirred controversy with hawkish and arguably reckless comments against Pakistan. The very idea of calling a “nuclear bluff”, as Gen Rawat has said of Pakistan, ought to give all right-thinking and sensible people in South Asia pause.

With the army chief appearing to suggest that the Cold Start doctrine has become a core part of Indian military strategy against Pakistan, the danger of a general conflict between Pakistan and India is growing. Crossing the international border is an act of war, and Pakistan would simply have no option but to respond.

There is no scenario in which Pakistan can treat an Indian incursion on its soil as a temporary or acceptable move that does not merit a forceful and immediate response.

From the very beginning, the logic of Cold Start threatened to elevate the risk of nuclear conflict between Pakistan and India, and yet India has pursued it while denying its existence for many years.

Gen Rawat’s disturbing comments have also underlined the dire state of Pakistan-India relations.

From the Kulbhushan Jadhav controversy to frequent incidents of violence along the Line of Control, the difficulties are increasing and the opportunities for positive change are decreasing. Deep political divisions inside Pakistan ahead of a general election scheduled for later this year suggest that major initiatives in the relationship with India are unlikely until at least the end of the year.

By then, India will be preparing for its own general election in 2019. If the last Indian general election is any indication of what the next campaign season could bring, BJP hardliners and sundry other politicians may explicitly base their election campaigns on anti-Pakistan rhetoric.

The political climate in both countries suggests that the bilateral relationship may at best stay frozen or could further deteriorate. These are certainly not hopeful times for those desiring the normalisation of ties between Pakistan and India ultimately.

Yet, hawkish comments against Pakistan by the Indian army chief and an unpromising political climate in both countries cannot erase the core truth of Pakistan-India relations: the two countries simply cannot afford to not engage each other in dialogue.

The recent meeting in Bangkok between the national security advisers of Pakistan and India suggests that the two countries are aware that a total breakdown in communications is not desirable.

But if hawks on both sides are to be prevented from dictating the tone and content of bilateral engagements, meetings held away from the media spotlight need to produce tangible results. Meanwhile, India ought to consider why its military leadership is growing more important at the policymaking level.

Published in Dawn, January 15th, 2018


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