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Recent setbacks for New Delhi

Recent developments in the past week have dampened the mood among foreign policy mandarins in the national capital. For starters, a day after its return from India, the Pakistani Joint Investigation Team (JIT) probing the Pathankot attack claimed that Indian authorities had “failed” to provide evidence to prove that Pakistan-based terrorists had stormed the Indian Air Force base. Despite severe criticism, the Modi government had extended a red-carpet welcome to the entire team of Pakistani investigators. The officials were allowed to enter the military airbase from adjacent routes and their duration of the visit was as long as 55 minutes, enough to take a walk through the military facility. However, according to leading media outlets in Pakistan, the JIT reportedly could not collect evidence within a span of 55 odd minutes. It is imperative to note that there has been no official confirmation from Islamabad about the JIT’s alleged disappointment with its probe in India. But recent media reports and past precedence do not leave us with much hope. The JIT returned on Friday after their five-day visit to India during which all evidence pertaining to the attack was shared with them, including the DNA of four terrorists, their identity as well as call records showing involvement of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorists behind the attack on the Pathankot air base during the intervening night of January 1 and 2. Contrary to Saturday’s revelation, Pakistan had recently admitted the involvement of its nationals in the terror attack. It came in the form of the Pakistani Joint Investigation Team (JIT)’s written request to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) for sharing evidence in the case. The request was made under Section 188 of the Pakistani CrPC, which applies to Pakistani nationals who commit a crime outside the country, according to Indian intelligence officials. Suffice to say, the Indian government’s decision to go ahead with the joint probe was meant to send a message to the international community, particularly South Asia, that the Modi government is very committed to peace with Pakistan. However, after this recent development, the Modi government finds itself in troubled waters. It does seem to some that the idea of involving Pakistan in a terror probe may not have worked as hoped.

Indian intelligence officials had identified Kashif Jaan as the main handler of the terrorists. He was reportedly in touch with Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Masood Azhar, as the terrorists launched their assault at the base. The call details and intercepts analysed by Indian intelligence had pointed to the involvement of JeM top brass in the attack. India handed over the evidence and demanded immediate action into the case. Based on the evidence, Pakistan was forced to register a case to investigate the conspiracy behind masterminding the attack. But in the FIR lodged by Pakistani officials, Masood Azhar was not named, despite the mountain of evidence presented by New Delhi. The previous Pakistan government-appointed Special Investigation Team had also contended that there was no real evidence against Masood Azhar and JeM for their alleged role in the Pathankot attack. Suffice to say, it had only indicated Pakistan's unwillingness to dismantle these terror networks. The signal coming out of Pakistan after the JIT probe may also indicate the same.  New Delhi is keen to kick-start the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue (CBD) process, irrespective of actual gains. The willingness to host a Pakistani investigative team in Pathankot was probably part of that effort. After extending its invitation to the JIT, India had hoped that Pakistan would respond to that gesture and act in good faith. In other words, allow India access to JeM chief Masood Azhar. One must remember that the CBD process was brought to a halt due to the Pathankot attack. But past precedent does not give us much hope. The Pakistani military establishments use terror groups such as the JeM for strategic purposes are well known. Clouds have indeed gathered over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s desire to show that his persistence has persuaded Pakistan to turn its back on terror. Will he now proceed to engage Pakistan despite its calibrated use of terrorism? The Foreign Secretary hinted so though he did not elaborate on the nature of the engagement. More explicitly, can the proposed CBD go hand-in-hand with terrorism? These questions are best left for the Modi government to answer. However, some foreign policy hawks have attributed this recent development to poor strategy on New Delhi’s part. “Modi's diplomacy, driven more by personal equations than by leveraging or reciprocity, has yielded diminishing returns,” says Brahma Chellaney, a leading strategic thinker on South Asia.  How New Delhi proceeds from this recent setback will determine whether Chellaney is right or not.  

The other development that has irked India is China’s blatant pro-Pakistan stand at the United Nations. Using its veto powers, China has asserted that Pathankot terror attack mastermind and Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar does not qualify to be nailed as a "terrorist" to face UN sanctions as his case "did not meet" the Security Council's requirements. China's decision to place a "technical hold" on designating Azhar in the UN Sanctions Committee has really irked India. Suffice to say, India’s displeasure at China’s position on the matter is entirely justified.  Despite the JeM being listed in the UN Security Council Committee as far back as 2001 for its known terror activities and links to the al-Qaida, China has taken a rather incomprehensible stand. Late last year, China and India agreed to “coordinate positions on anti-terrorism endeavours at regional and multilateral levels and supporting each other” and promote “exchanges by groups of counter-terrorism experts to discuss counter-terrorism cooperation”. Clearly, the two neighbours have a long way to go before arriving at a coherent joint anti-terrorism policy. Moreover, by vetoing UN action against a leading Pakistani terrorist, China has shown the extent to which it is willing to go to undermine Indian security. But this is not the first time China has blocked India's bid to get Pakistan-based militant groups and leaders proscribed by the UN. The global body had banned the JeM in 2001. But India's efforts for a ban on Azhar after the 2008 Mumbai terror attack also did not come to fruition, as China did not allow the ban. Last July, China had similarly halted India's move in the UN to take action against Pakistan for its release of Mumbai terror attack mastermind Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, saying that its stand was "based on facts and in the spirit of objectiveness and fairness" with Beijing again claiming at the time that it was in touch with New Delhi.
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