On the surface, India’s policy arc towards Pakistan is puzzling. Every episode of domestic terrorism, like Gurdaspur, is followed by sharp rebukes, but little proof. The Indian government always promises a “disproportionate and unpredictable” response, whips up war hysteria, but then goes back to sleep. Its version of payback is to either ramp up cross-border fire on the Line of Control (LOC), sponsor new terrorists in Pakistan, or flood Punjab’s rivers during monsoon season. For a country that is now a major economic and military power, India sends too many mixed signals about war. Does it want one or does it not?

Of course, there is a larger endgame behind this dithering. For India, the ultimate validation of its new found stature would be a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC). It would also help “the young generation get rid of their low self-esteem,” says BJP leader Subramanian Swamy. Until that happens, India will rail at Pakistan, defend when necessary, but not risk an open show of force. It itches to outgrow South Asia and become part of the global elite, but constant friction with much-smaller Pakistan grounds its moral case. The country’s spotty human rights record does not help either.

When people in Pakistan fuss over the optics of Ufa, or the joint statement that followed, they miss the bigger picture. This meeting was Pakistan’s win for one simple reason: India, with all its military might and G20 clout, still finds the cost of not engaging Pakistan prohibitive. Even as both countries regularly accuse each other of state sponsored terrorism, India pushes for dialogue despite having the capacity to militarily assert itself.

Indeed, if India was not aiming so high, it would have taken military advantage of Pakistan’s tough war on the western front years ago. Capitalizing on your enemy’s weakness is common sense after all. One theory goes that China keeps India of Pakistan, which is somewhat true. However, without a formal defense pact, the idea of Beijing intervening in an Indo-Pak war is wishful thinking. Moreover, was it not surprising that an unabashed Hindu nationalist like Narendra Modi - a man who proudly admitted to his role in creating Bangladesh - decided to risk a popularity dip just to chitchat in Ufa? What this boils down to is a status quo stalemate: where Indian politics will orbit around anti-Pakistan talk, but eschew a head-on collision that could kill India’s chances at the UNSC.

S. MUBASHIR NOOR,

Lahore, July 31.