How to handle India

Sometimes not saying anything is a sign of greater strength and grace than stating the obvious. When I hear my country’s interior minister boldly proclaim that, “Pakistan is not Myanmar”, I worry that we are investing too much in stating the obvious, and in the process, ignoring the more important, but less obvious.

If we were to make a collage of all the incendiary and stupid things Indian leaders have said in recent months about Pakistan, it would be a colourful mosaic. India is enjoying the understandable intoxication of having elected a religious extremist with a murky past as prime minister, and getting away with it. Prime Minister Modi is the toast of every country that salivates at the prospect of a still underdeveloped consumer market of over one billion people. The combination of the rest of the world’s lust for a share of the Indian growth pie and understandable intergenerational Hindu extremist angst makes for a powerful political aphrodisiac.

Many around the world were surprised by the brazen aggression of the Indian national discourse after the so-called hot pursuit India engineered in Myanmar to strike against terrorists who had killed Indian soldiers last week. India’s defence minister publicly lamented his sense that India’s military did not enjoy the respect it deserved because it had not been in a war for several decades. Indian apologists went to great pains to highlight the caveat he included in his rant, “I don’t mean to say we should go to war”, but Manohar Parrikar is channelling something that damage-control tweets and Facebook updates cannot account for. He is channelling a nation’s existential euphoria.

India’s swagger is here to stay. Too many of those who ached for the coming of the new generation of Indian leader, crystallised in the person, style and Hindu supremacist ideology of Narendra Modi are tired of hiding behind secularism, or diversity or political correctness. India is a big, muscular giant of a world power. As people who are understandably in love with their identity, their ideology and their country, why should they keep putting India in a chaardivaari, or a chaadar? India is coming out, and those who don’t like it, well, they’re the ones the whole show is for.

Reminding India of basic, obvious facts doesn’t just smack of a lack of creativity. It also smacks of an ungodly lack of self-confidence, and a worrying absence of self-awareness. India’s posture toward Pakistan has been meticulously crafted to produce outcomes that Pakistan should, by now, be able to predict and plan for.

Indian ministerial proclamations and warnings to Pakistan, along with the suspension of the foreign secretaries talks, the scaling up of violence along both the Line of Control and the working boundary, and the overarching ‘everything-minus Pakistan’ formula that India has been less coy about in recent months are designed to provoke Pakistan into stupidity.

Sometimes, we are so keen to help India prove it is the bigger nation that we fast-forward to stupidity more swiftly and readily than even Ajit Doval could have prayed for.

For example, in a list of stupid ways to react to Indian taunting after its post Manipur Myanmar operation, where would parading the leader of a banned and internationally problematic organisation across the national news media rank? Pretty high. The day after the hyper-nationalist zeal about Myanmar in India had spiked, who was back on the Pakistani airwaves and in our newspapers? It was the leader of a banned and internationally problematic organisation.

If there is one picture of Pakistan that Indian hawks, doves, sickulars and Hindutvadis all want the world to see, it is that one. The one we served them on a platter, less than 24 hours after they engineered a brilliant set play to provoke Pakistani stupidity. India’s ministers speak with obscene aggression about Pakistan, we let our response be shaped by the image and words of a non-state actor widely seen around the world as an enabler of terror. Pretty stupid.

Is India a malevolent regional actor? Absolutely. Is India in the throes of a dangerous and globally unchallenged process of religious polarisation of state and society? It seems so. Is India wrong on Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, and a host of other issues? Hardly a doubt.

Most of all, is India able to play Pakistan like a ukulele whenever it wants? It looks like it.

The game India’s strategic geniuses are now playing should be obvious. Keep making nice with everyone in the world, except Pakistan. Keep needling Pakistan’s insecurities and instabilities. If Pakistan thinks RAW is supporting terror, all the better. It feeds the monster even more. And when the monster breaks out into a sweat, not knowing how to deal with the provocations and the needling, and the alleged support for terrorist activity, just point and laugh.

On social media, the term used for what India is doing is ‘trolling’. It is usually used as an instrument of engagement by smaller, less visible actors, to engage (and enrage) bigger actors. The engagement that trolling produces helps draw attention to the little guy. Sometimes, however, trolling is an even more effective tool – when employed by the big guy. The ploy is simple: draw the little guy you don’t like into a conversation whose contours you can define and manage. And then just watch (and partake in the delight) as the little guy exposes himself, covered in bitterness, rage and self-defeating narratives that play into the strengths of the big guy.

How then should Pakistan deal with India’s sophisticated trolling of it? By the same tool used by thousands of individuals every day on social media. Ignore. Ignore. Ignore.

The big changes we are claiming in Pakistan, quite rightly, have three dimensions. The first is the economic game-changer called the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The second is the political transformation of the Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship. The third is the relentless and uninhibited pursuit of terrorists through Zarb-e-Azb and the National Plan of Action.

All three have their problems. We should have been more organised on the CPEC, we should be doing more for President Ghani, and we should have a more clear countering violent extremism (CVE) narrative. There’s plenty of room for improvement.

But notice what doing any of these things better does not need. It doesn’t need any affirmation of the Two Nation Theory or progress on Siachen, or Sir Creek. We don’t need India to build roads, or power plants and other infrastructure. We don’t need India to do more for our Afghan brothers. We don’t need India to deny extremists the space to operate in our country.

If India is supporting terrorism in Pakistan, we should expect nothing better. If India is trying to provoke and goad us into an unproductive and distracting conversation, what else were we expecting?

One day, the vision of those that dream of a normalised South Asia will come true. The people of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh deserve a future of economic cooperation and growth. But that day will not come through Indian benevolence, or Pakistani weakness. Pakistan’s strength lies in its ability to absorb Indian provocation, turn the other cheek and demonstrate to the world the single-mindedness of our pursuit of national strength and dignity.

So whether you are a Pakistani hawk, or a Pakistani dove, the answer to India’s silly rhetoric about Pakistan is no answer at all. Trolls don’t deserve the time or energy of a country with a single-minded devotion to economic growth and strategic strength. The only way Pakistan loses anything to India, at anytime, is by giving it the reactions it seeks. Pakistani leaders must remember: sometimes not saying anything is a sign of greater strength and grace than stating the obvious.

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