Can the supposedly responsible governments of two nuclear-armed countries sink any lower? Unfortunately, it seems entirely likely. In Pakistan, Khanʹs government, anointed by the Pakistani military, will progressively consolidate power. In India, election fever is heating up under a government that has not hesitated to politicise the military and often substitutes marketing for tangible achievements.

For example, the BJP constantly boasts of cross-border raids on terrorist camps in Myanmar and Pakistan. Last month, it celebrated the anniversary of one such raid across the Line of Control in Kashmir, despite the fact that the raid had no lasting geostrategic impact. Cross-border terrorist incursions, aided and abetted by the Pakistani military, have continued in the two years since.

Rollercoaster relations: now cordial…

Meanwhile, foreign-policy experts are wondering whether India under Modi has a Pakistan policy at all. After demonising Pakistan in his campaign speeches, Modi invited his then-counterpart Nawaz Sharif to Delhi for his 2014 inauguration, raising hopes – reinforced by exchanges of shawls, saris, and even sentimental letters to each otherʹs mothers – of a new dawn in bilateral relations.

Less than two months later, India and Pakistan were exchanging artillery fire across the still-sensitive border. Talks between their respective foreign ministers were called off when the Pakistanis proposed meeting Indian Kashmiri separatist leaders – a common practice, to which earlier Indian governments had responded with official indifference. That November, at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit in Nepal, Modi pointedly stared at a brochure instead of greeting Sharif, though it was later revealed that the two leaders met privately in a hotel suite belonging to an Indian businessman.

Indian soldiers stand guard outside Pathankot airbase near the Pakistan border that was attacked by gunmen, allegedly from Pakistan, on 2 January 2016 (photo: picture-alliance/AP/C. Anand)
Cut the incendiary rhetoric: "Indian officials have found it frustrating to talk peace to a civilian government that – because the military calls the shots in Pakistan – seems unable or unwilling to deliver on any commitments. But the fact remains that Indiaʹs government lacks a cohesive policy framework for negotiating the relationship with its most turbulent neighbour, much less a compelling vision for lasting peace," writes Shahroor

The pattern has repeated itself throughout Modiʹs tenure. One day, the ruling party avers that talks and terror donʹt go together, and that Pakistan cannot be rewarded with a visit from Indian leaders until it makes progress on punishing the perpetrators of 2008 terror attack in Mumbai. The next day, Modi is winging impulsively to Lahore to attend a family celebration at Sharifʹs home, sending Indiaʹs surprised high commissioner scurrying late to the airport to receive his boss.

…now on ice

Shortly after that impromptu visit to Lahore in late 2015, seven Indians were killed by Pakistani militants at the Pathankot Air Force Base, putting the bilateral relationship on ice again. More attacks from Pakistan have followed, bringing more inconsistent and episodic responses from India, typified in the latest UN setback.

It is true that many Indian officials have found it frustrating to talk peace to a civilian government that – because the military calls the shots in Pakistan – seems unable or unwilling to deliver on any commitments. But the fact remains that Indiaʹs government lacks a cohesive policy framework for negotiating the relationship with its most turbulent neighbour, much less a compelling vision for lasting peace.

Modiʹs is a foreign policy by whim, not by design. As Indiaʹs election campaigns heat up, one can only hope that those whims – and the incendiary rhetoric that often accompanies them – do not ignite a conflagration.

Shashi Tharoor

© Project Syndicate 2018

Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary-general and former Indian Minister of State for Human Resource Development and Minister of State for External Affairs, is currently an MP for the Indian National Congress and Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs. He is the author of "Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century".

More on this topic